The final instalment in a series of essays exploring my personal independent study of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. This essay first appeared in The Schubertian, the journal of the Schubert Institute UK.

O thrice romantic master, wouldn’t you like to stroll under the cherry blossom with your love in the daytime and listen to Schubert in the evening?

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

In the spring of 2016, when I was in the final throes of preparation for my Fellowship performance diploma recital, I had some physiotherapy treatment on my left shoulder and arm. At one of the sessions the physiotherapist asked me if I had been doing a lot of lateral arm movement with the left arm: she had identified an area of muscle which was tight and slightly over-developed. I explained that in the finale of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, the left hand plays a repeating triplet figure, for which an almost continuous lateral arm movement (or a “polishing” motion on the keys) is required for the 13 or so minutes of the movement.

This anecdote illustrates several points about the finale of the D959: that it is a long movement of almost relentless forward motion and one which puts considerable technical and physical demands on the pianist.

The opening movement and the finale provide the bookends for this large sonata: both are a similar length (if one observes the exposition repeat in the first movement, which I do) and both have an expansiveness which takes pianist and listener on some intriguing musical highways and by-ways. By creating a finale of such length and involvement, Schubert gives us a sonata with a perfectly-balanced structure: two large outer movements surround two shorter inner movements

The finale is a Rondo whose structural scheme is modeled on the finale (also a Rondo) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 31 no.1. In fact, the only truly imitative element is Schubert’s reworking of the slow movement theme from his Piano Sonata in A minor, D537, composed more than a decade earlier, to which he brings the lilting gentleness of ‘Im Fruhling’ (D882). Scored in sonata-rondo form (A–B–A– Development–A–B–A–Coda), this lyrical movement comprises an almost continuous triplet movement and a songful melody, replete with striking harmonic and emotional shifts.

The development section culminates in a long passage in C-sharp minor which refers back to the dramatic middle section of the Andantino. The ensuing passage leads to a false recapitulation in F-sharp major, which then modulates to begin again with the second subject in the home key. In the coda, the main theme returns fragmented, which recalls the hesitancy of the coda in the first movement. The final section of the coda is marked Presto, and here agitated and exuberant arpeggios, redolent of those from the first movement, overlay fragments from the main theme in the bass before arriving at a dramatic false cadence of sforzando chords. Now a fragment of the main theme is heard again, this time marked pianissimo, before the closing statement of sforzando chords, based on the majestic chordal theme of the opening of the Sonata. It is a glorious statement with which to close this wonderful work.

The cyclic elements, first encountered in the opening movement, are evident in the finale, most obviously the short-long “ta tah” figure which is heard in the very first notes of the movement: the first subject theme begins with a quaver followed by a quaver rest and then a minim. This same motif reappears in the tumultuous minor section (bars 146-157) and of course in the recapitulation of the first subject (bar 328). Rests and fermatas (also cyclic elements encountered in the first movement) provide dramatic pauses in the flow of the music’s narrative, the most striking coming at bar 327 and throughout the coda, reinforcing the reiteration of the first-subject theme, and reminding us of the opening movement.

The triplets, which begin in bar 17 and remain an almost-continuous feature of the Finale, provide a unifying thread and create a stream of bubbling movement. They are both lyrical (for example bars 17-24) and serve to underpin the harmony, particularly when forming the accompaniment. At other times, they suggest orchestral textures, when coupled with chords in the other hand (for example, bars 37-44 or 112-116). They must, of course, be played with evenness throughout (lots of lateral arm movement!) and should not be rushed: pushing the tempo of this movement (which is marked Allegretto) will result in a performance which sounds relentless rather than responsive and good-natured.

Despite the movement’s tight structure, it moves along with the sense of  “fresh-minted inspiration carving out its own natural path as it goes.” (Newbould) and in order to convey this to the listener, I feel one should take Schiff’s advice and “follow Schubert on his journeys and recognize its various stations”. Thus, shifts in melody, harmony and rhythm should feel spontaneous and natural, and it is this seamlessness which gives the movement its character, such that it could almost be performed as a stand-alone work. It is a movement rich in varied material and texture, from the genial first subject, which is clearly drawn from string quartet writing, to a second subject (first heard in the right hand at bar 46) which suggests woodwind, with string accompaniment. There are brass fanfares (bars 41 and 43, for example) and grand dramatic orchestral gestures (bars 146-160) and even a passage deeply redolent of Beethoven (bars 179-211).

The challenge of learning this movement, in addition to the learning and upkeep of so many notes, was retaining a sense of the through-narrative of the music, while also giving it the requisite breathing space and natural contours, both within phrases and in longer sections. But it is, for me, one of the most satisfying of any movements of a sonata to play, largely because of its free-ranging flow of ideas.

***

Reflecting on the experience of tackling such a large sonata, perhaps the most obvious aspect I have taken from this is an enhanced ability to practise deeply and efficiently, taking note of every detail in the score and continually examining and questioning the composer’s intentions. This kind of “musical detective work” was supported by extensive reading and listening (on disc and in concert), and conversations with professional pianists who regularly perform this repertoire, all of which gave me a deeper appreciation of Schubert’s astonishing creativity and inventiveness, an appreciation which I have subsequently applied to learning or revisiting some of his shorter piano works, including the first set of Impromptus.

I also learnt that it is not possible, mentally or physically, to devote one’s entire practise regime to a single work, and by “resting” the sonata while I learnt other music allowed me to return to it with renewed interest and fresh ideas. Thus the learning process became a “musical adventure”, peeling back the layers of this extraordinary music to reveal its greater depths and intriguing mysteries. It has been deeply satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and hugely beneficial to my general development as a pianist.

I am indebted to my teacher, Graham Fitch, for his very positive support and encouragement during the long learning process, and also to concert pianists Daniel Grimwood and James Lisney (both fine Schubert players) who offered me challenging food for thought on Schubert, the man and his music.


Select bibliography

Brendel, Alfred, ‘Schubert’s Last Sonatas’, in Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected Essays and Lectures (London: The Robson Press, 2015)

Fisk, Charles, Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2015)

Montgomery, David, Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance. Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003)

Schiff, Andras, ‘Schubert’s Piano Sonatas: thoughts about interpretation and performance’, in Brian Newbould (ed.) Schubert Studies (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 1998)

 

Favourite recordings of the D959

Richard Goode (Nonesuch, 1988)

Radu Lupu (Decca)

Inon Barnatan (Avie, 2013)

Krystian Zimmerman (DG, 2017)

 

I’ve given up my SW London piano teaching practice due to a relocation to Dorset, and this sabbatical from teaching has given me pause for reflection on the past 12 years….

I never intended to be a piano teacher. I worked for ten years in art and academic publishing after leaving university and I continued to freelance in this sector when I stopped full-time work to have my son. But as my son started to grow up and become more independent, I began to consider a change of direction but it had to be one which could accommodate the school day and looking after my son during the school holidays. One day, during the chat that takes places between mums in the school playground while they wait to collect their children, a friend asked me if I might teach her daughter to play the piano. “But I’m not a piano teacher!” I said. The friend suggested that I try piano lessons with her daughter “as an experiment, to see if you you both like it. Rosie can be your trial student“. And so in September 2006, I started teaching Rosie, and quickly acquired more students who had heard about me via Rosie’s mum.

I’ve never been formally taught how to teach and I had no clear “method” when I started teaching, only that I was determined to make piano lessons interesting and fun for the children, the absolute opposite of my childhood lessons which had seemed dull and interminable, and almost entirely driven by an exam treadmill. I was pretty sure I could articulate this in a way that would appeal to children. My teaching practice grew rapidly and by the end of the first year I had nearly 20 students, most of whom had come to me via my son’s primary school. People would come up to me in the playground and say “you’re the piano teacher, aren’t you?“. And indeed by about 18 months into the job, I felt qualified to call myself “the piano teacher”.

I found the first couple of years quite tough. At that time, when I was still a fledgling piano teacher, I took anyone. I didn’t interview prospective students or their parents, because I knew most of them via the primary school anyway. But after a couple of instances where I and the child or parent simply did not get on, I grew more discerning and careful about whom I took on. And after a parent persistently messed me around over dates and times of lessons, cancelling them at short notice and demanding that I reschedule or offer a refund, I introduced a formal contract which put everyone on an equal footing and enabled me to run the studio in a more formal/businesslike way.

And that perhaps was the first most important lesson I learnt about running my own teaching studio – that one needs to formalise arrangements to ensure people treat you with the respect due a professional person.

A few years ago, by which time my studio had grown to 25 students and I had two performance diplomas successfully under my belt, I decided to make some significant changes to the way I organised my teaching: I “let go” the students who were simply coasting, not practising and not really taking their piano lessons particularly seriously; I rebranded myself as a serious teacher of classical music (no more Adele songs!) who carefully selects students via an interview and trial lesson; and I put my fees up. Within weeks of making these changes, I had more enquiries than ever and I began to enjoy real job satisfaction too.

Second lesson: as a freelancer, don’t be afraid of making changes to your working life to suit you and which gives you job satisfaction. A happy teacher is more likely to be a successful teacher.

In terms of the actual teaching, I based much of it on my own very positive experiences with my music teacher at secondary school, rather than on my childhood and teenage private piano lessons. My music teacher was endlessly inventive and enthusiastic and it was his enthusiasm that, more than anything else, I tried to incorporate into my teaching. I felt – rightly – that children and young people, adults too, would be enthused and excited by music if I was enthused by it, and I made sure everyone learnt and played music which they enjoyed, rather than which might be “good for them”. When, in 2008, I started having lessons myself again after a break of nearly 25 years, I was able to distill what I was learning into easily understandable nuggets for my students and I quickly saw the benefit of my own lessons in my students’ playing as well as my own. In addition, I started attending courses and workshops to enhance my professional development, and began to connect with more piano teachers too.

Third lesson: good teachers never stop learning themselves

Now my teaching style and approach has settled into one which is relaxed and flexible. There is no “one size fits all” in teaching because all students are individuals and deserve to be treated as such. I know each student’s strengths and weaknesses, what music they particularly enjoy, and how much or little they like to be pushed by teacher. Some want to take exams, others are content to learn music which they enjoying playing. I’ve always been a natural communicator and it’s not in my nature to be overly didactic: I want to empower students by giving them the tools, and the confidence, which encourages self-discovery and independent learning. I have taught a couple of very musical and talented students, and supporting them with issues such as perfectionism, performance anxiety and the psychology of performance present their own interesting challenges and force me to think outside the box as a teacher and confront my own issues in these areas.

For me, teaching is an exchange of ideas, a process of showing (the word “teach” comes from an Old English word meaning “to show or guide”), demonstrating, explaining, confirming, questioning….. An inquisitive student is likely to learn more, and more quickly. I encourage my students to find their own individual voice in their music making and to use their developing musical knowledge to help them make judgements about aspects such as interpretation and presentation. I don’t use a set “method” or particular range of tutor books. Instead, my teaching is instinctive, responding to each student’s needs and wishes rather than imposing my own opinion and way of doing things on them, and I encourage excellence, which is achievable, rather than perfection, which is not. My own regular studies with two master teachers, in addition to encounters with other renowned teachers and pianists via courses and masterclasses, has undoubtedly informed my teaching, and will continue to do so.

Teaching has taught me far more than I ever would have imagined about being a musician as I constantly refocus and re-examine what I do and how I approach my own music making.  Perhaps the most significant thing I have learnt over the past twelve years is that learning is a continuous, ever-changing process. It is satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and deeply fulfilling to watch students develop, find their musical voice and tastes and, above all, to gain pleasure and enjoyment from their music making.

For further information about my teaching practice please visit www.franceswilson.co.uk

Some pieces which I have enjoyed teaching and sharing with my students:

Chopin – Nocturne in C# minor, op post

Bartok – Merry Andrew

Grovlez – Petite Litanies de Jesus

 

Shostakovich – March from Three Fantastic Dances


Further reading

The Performing Teacher

 

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I had a sort of mundane epiphany when I was sixteen, the realisation (while sitting on a cramped coach with fifty other sweaty and tired musicians) that I could spend every day for the rest of my life doing music and not mind. This was quite a big deal considering that I minded the possibility of pretty much anything else being a serious pursuit; my attention span was very unpredictable, and I didn’t tend to truly persevere at much except doodling ferociously in lessons.

We were touring Holst’s The Planets in Sweden, I was playing first oboe with my youth orchestra and over those ten days I just fell helplessly and unglamorously in love with music, having spent twelve years coasting along at the piano and at rehearsals without ever fully committing. I also fell a bit in love with a cellist which may have helped the decision-making process…

I subsequently had a weird spiritual experience back home in Newcastle where I felt that composing was my one true calling and that I had no option but to pursue it obsessively. The first piece I wrote was a strange and dissonant duet for violin and cello, and the second was a terrible ‘Chopin-with-a-hangover’ piano sonatina. I had no concept of structure, form, or large-scale harmony, so these pieces are still my most, and least original compositions.

It was necessary to learn the ‘big picture’ at university first before specialising. Oxford was a slightly mad choice, as the workload left rather little time for creativity, but I learned a lot there, and I started my string quartet which I have just finished this year! The career bit came during my Masters at RNCM as I needed time to work out how on earth people made it work full-time. Sometimes I look back at eight-year-old me, dancing around in bizarre, one-woman musicals on the living room stage for her dear parents, and wonder how she got here.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The biggest milestones so far have probably been: hearing Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet at a concert with my mum when I was seventeen; discussing one of my first compositions with Nicola LeFanu at St Hilda’s; meeting Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and sending him one of my scores (he replied); getting my first professional commission with Streetwise Opera after my Masters; working with Rambert Dance Company as the Music Fellow last year.

Streetwise Opera showed me the power that music, and new music, can have in people’s lives, and how collaborating with performers can inspire me to make something completely different. Working alongside everyone at Rambert taught me more in a year that I think I’ve learned in the other twenty-three. My teachers gave me the tools to write and helped to equip me with the resilience and the perspective you need as a professional musician.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Undoubtedly the first summer was the hardest. I was juggling eight different jobs/commissions and I was still broke because none of them were going to pay me until September, so I got a café job on top of that. I had just moved house and all of my friends were away, I was ill every week so lost a teaching assistant position, I hadn’t had any holiday in over a year, my mental health was awful and I had zero inspiration for any pieces. It was hard to see how it was going to work out, but it did! I think it was J.K. Rowling who said “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” I don’t think I was anywhere near rock bottom but I wasn’t feeling very confident about the future, and it has all seemed less bad since that August.

The other greatest challenge was that of producing my chamber opera, which was a much bigger task than composing it! I spent a whole year on it with RNCM musicians, and it resulted in a collaboration with choreographer Dane Hurst at Tete a Tete opera festival, funded by the Arts Council and by the generosity of individual sponsors. I was very, very nervous before the August performance and barely slept for a week, but my team were amazing so I shouldn’t have worried so much.

It’s always frustrating when you get rejected from things, but I’ve made a ‘folder of failure’ that helps me to find the pitfalls funnier. If you want to know the really good anecdotes, you’ll have to ask me in person!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I love commissions as they give you restrictions within which to be creative! Sometimes they verge on being too restrictive, and if you don’t get to choose your collaborators it can be tricky at times, but generally I find it easier to write when I have a clear brief. Context is all. It’s also really lovely, every time, to be asked to write something for a special occasion or exciting new project.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

It’s their unique tastes, characteristics, personalities, strengths and weaknesses that give me my musical language for that piece, and the collaboration process generally produces something more original and exciting than I would have made on my own. Working with amateurs provides great variety as every group is different. Most of my pieces are tailored quite carefully to the ensemble that I am working with, but I also aim for some adaptability for future performances.

As well as working with other musicians, I love collaborating with writers, dancers, and artists with different specialisms. This work can be challenging in terms of communication and teamwork, but I love these messy and dynamic processes and their results.

Of which works are you most proud?

The chamber opera-ballet, Citizens of Nowhere, my string quartet, Antiphony, my choral piece, Fall, Leaves, Fall, and my two electronic pieces made with choreographers Carolyn Bolton and Julie Cunningham, Solo Matter and Imaginary Situations.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Sometimes it’s like Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, Machonchy and Sibelius in a blender, and sometimes it’s like Sondheim and Bjork got drunk together and fell asleep on my keyboard.

How do you work?

If you could tell me that, I’d hire you immediately.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That changes every month, but I will always love the four old B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Britten and The Beatles, and the lieder/piano pieces by Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann and Josephine Lang are just gorgeous. I grew up listening to my parents’ ceilidh band, my granddad’s jazz favourites, my grandpa’s bassoon practice, the best of Simon and Garfunkel on LP, and my siblings’ CD collections. I have not yet heard a piece by Stravinsky that I didn’t like. My contemporary playlist changes every week but it usually involves some classical, some electronic music, some pop, some jazz, and some silence…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Putting your heart into your music so much that other people can hear it beating, without exhausting yourself or exploiting anyone else. Success at the expense of others looks empty to me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Everyone will tell you that it isn’t easy or sensible, but life isn’t easy or sensible, so think about whether you are happy for music to cause a lot of those problems for you, or whether you want it to stay safe as a side profession. Be prepared to fail as it will help you improve, and be prepared to compromise but not so much that you lose sight of your boundaries. Surround yourself with musicians and artists who can help you and whom you can help in turn, don’t be afraid to walk up to interesting people at drinks receptions and ask them about their work, but also have some friends outside the music world who can help you to have time off!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Something completely spontaneous like going for a long walk and taking photos of weird things that I see, or dancing full-whack after sitting at my desk for hours, or eating a huge homemade curry and playing pool with my housemates, or talking about life until the small hours, or praying / meditating / reading when I’ve realised that I have lost perspective, or looking at the sea when I visit my parents in the North East, or going to an art gallery in a new city, or getting on a train to meet an ensemble that I’m about to work with and then becoming part of their community for a time. And then, really, the two things I enjoy most of all are starting a piece and finishing a piece.


Anna Appleby is a multi-award-winning composer based in Manchester and is part of both the RSNO Composers’ Hub and the Making Music / Sound and Music ‘Adopt A Composer’ scheme for 2017/18. Anna has been the 2016/17 Music Fellow with Rambert Dance Company. She has written for artists including the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the Cavaleri Quartet, the Hermes Experiment, the BBC Singers, Manchester Camerata, Jonathan Powell, Het Balletorkest and A4 Brass. Her work has been performed on BBC Radio 3, and in venues including the Holywell Music Room, the Southbank Centre, RNCM Concert Hall, HOME theatre, RADA Studios, the National Theatre River Stage and the Sage Gateshead. Anna has recently been a composer in residence with Streetwise Opera, Quay Voices, Brighter Sound and the Cohan Collective.

Originally from Newcastle Upon Tyne, Anna has a great love of folk and jazz, and now specialises in writing contemporary classical music. Her work often consciously revolves around the human voice or body, with opera and dance being particular interests. Collaboration is at the heart of her creative practice.

Anna has worked with numerous choreographers including: Dane Hurst, Michael Naylor, Jacqueline Bulnes, Nina von der Werth, Igor & Moreno, Peter Leung, Pierre Tappon, Julie Cunningham and Carolyn Bolton. 

www.annaappleby.com

London Orchestra Project

Strauss: Metamorphosen

Sunday 27 May 2018 at 19:30, LSO St Lukes, London, EC1 V 9NG

The London Orchestra Project, a new venture where principal players from across London’s professional orchestras sit side-by-side with outstanding students and recent graduates from London’s music colleges, performs Strauss’s deeply moving Metamorphosen along with Ligeti’s intricately rhythmic Ramifications and Bartok’s folk inspired Divertimento on Sunday 27 May at LSO St Lukes.

Co-founded by Stephen Bryant, leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and conductor James Ham, the orchestra consists of a true 50/50 split of professional players to recent graduates. Speaking about LOP’s unique approach to player development, James Ham says: “We’re very excited by this concert and are fortunate to have some of London’s finest orchestral players on board. It’s a way for students and graduates on the cusp of a professional orchestral career to directly benefit from the knowledge and insight from some of the UK’s most experienced orchestral musicians. Our future plans also include working with emerging composers and ultimately establishing LOP as a gateway to the profession”.

Stephen Bryant added: “By bringing together principal players from across London, our focus is very much founded on quality in terms of not only the players, but also the experience of the students and graduates involved, our choice of programmes and the musical experience for the audience

For this concert, Stephen Bryant will lead graduate players from the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Trinity Laban Conservatoire alongside principal players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Birmingham Royal Ballet, London Sinfonietta, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

www.londonorchestraproject.co.uk

Tickets: £15 (£5 for students and under 18s) are available from the Barbican Box Office: tickets@barbican.org.uk

Tel: 020 7638 8891 (10am-8pm Mon-Sat, 11am-8pm Sun)


(source: press release)

I had a great time in December putting together music for my friend Honor’s wedding in Singapore. We met each other through an immersive theatre company called Punchdrunk, whose shows we have both been to multiple times – on three continents. Their current production “Sleep No More” lured us both to Shanghai last year, and she wanted some of its atmosphere to permeate her wedding, meaning a large dose of 1930s and 40s jazz. But her fiancé (now husband!) is Russian and his family were obviously coming to the wedding, and we thought it would be nice to include something with a Russian flavour as well. So this mix includes not just obvious crowd-pleasers like Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine”, but also obscurities like “Morning and Evening” by the Leoníd Utësov Jazz Orchestra or the fantastically catchy waltz “Always Together” by Mikhail Mikhailov and the Michael Ginsburg Jazz Orchestra. It’s amazing how seamlessly they fit in. There are also a few deliberate hat-tips to “Sleep No More” in there, such as “Weep No More My Baby” by Al Bowlly and the Ray Noble Orchestra, which is featured on the show’s soundtrack.


Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a composer and arranger whose work is published by Edition Peters. He is also a freelance music engraver and provides professional music services at www.opus101.org.

The Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast invites three people who play, listen or otherwise work in classical music to sit and discuss the subject they love. They’re unplanned conversations recorded as live, very nearly unedited, and more often than not take unexpected twists and turns.

In this the second Thoroughly Good Podcast to which I’ve contributed, Adam Gatehouse, co-Artistic Director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, outlines the changes the competition has undergone since the retirement of Dame Fanny Waterman (the competition’s founder), in addition to more general conversation about communication in performance and why the core canon of the piano repertoire is special.

LISTEN HERE