Tag Archives: A Pianist’s Alphabet

U is for……

letteruUna Corda

Una Corda is the direction to the pianist to apply the left-hand or soft pedal. The function of the soft pedal was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the piano had evolved to have three strings on most of the notes. When the una corda pedal was applied, the action of the piano would shift so that only one string was struck – hence the words “una corda”, or “one string”.

On a modern grand piano the strings are placed too closely to permit a true una corda effect: the left-hand pedal shifts the whole action, including the keyboard slightly to the right, so that hammers which normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them. The resulting sound is softer and also has a duller quality due to the two strings being struck making contact with a part of the hammer felt which is not often hit and which is therefore slightly softer in density, creating a different quality of sound. On an upright piano, the mechanism is arranged so that when the left-hand pedal is applied, the resting position of the hammers is moved closer to the strings so that they have a shorter distance to travel and therefore the strings are struck with less force, creating less sound.

While the una corda pedal can be used to achieved wonderfully soft, muted and veiled effects in piano music, it is not simply a “quiet pedal”, any more than the right-hand, sustaining pedal is the “loud pedal”, and just as there are “degrees” of sustaining pedal, depending on the repertoire, so the una corda can be depressed in a variety of ways to create multi-faceted musical colours and sonorities. As with all pedalling, an acute ear, practise, discretion and experimentation will lead to greater confidence and expertise, resulting in truly wonderful effects.

Here is Beethoven giving very specific directions in the use of the una corda pedal: he stipulates lifting the left pedal so gently that only bit by bit are all the strings sounding again – only two initially and ultimately all three again:nbs-4

 

 

Urtext

An urtext edition of a work of classical music is a printed version intended to reproduce the original intention of the composer as exactly as possible, without any added or changed material. (Wikipedia)

The source materials for Urtext editions include the composer’s autograph (the manuscript produced in the composer’s hand), hand copies made by the composer’s students and assistants, the first published edition and other early editions. Urtext editions differ from facsimile editions, which present a photographic reproduction of one of the original sources for a work of music, and interpretive editions, which offer the editor’s personal opinion on how to perform the work.

Urtext scores came into being as a reaction against the many (and often incorrect) editorial liberties which were taken when editing and publishing music. Phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and sometimes even the notes themselves were altered as the editor saw fit, and so long as it made musical sense, this kind of editing was considered acceptable. Editors guilty of this kind of tampering include Busoni (in Bach) and von Bülow, amongst many others. These days, the urtext score is a must-have for the serious student, teacher or performer, offering as it does a “clean” version of the manuscript, without the distractions of an editor’s markings, and opinions, and is the most faithful record of the composer’s original intentions, which provides the starting point for independent thought and interpretative possibilities.

I still have my old ABRSM editions of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions and “the 48”. Heavily annotated by the ABRSM’s editors, the manuscript is distorted with the kind of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation markings which would probably horrify Bach.  In an urtext score, particularly a Baroque urtext score, the absence of performance directions offers the performer choice, versatility and expression.

Urtext editions, in particular those produced by established music publishers such as Henle, Wiener and Barenreiter, tend to be high-quality publications, with detailed and insightful prefaces and notes, descriptions of sources (usually in German, English and French), useful fingerings, and aesthetically-pleasing design values: durable bindings, heavy cream paper, and clear music engraving optimised for efficient page turns. With the increasing popularity of digital downloads, resources such as Piano Street and IMSLP also offer urtext editions in their catalogues.

Resources:

Henle Verlag

Wiener Urtext

Barenreiter

Edition Peters

Dover Publications

IMSLP

M is for…..

script-letter-m-402608Dial M for Mompou

Whenever I introduce the under-championed Federico/Frederic Mompou (1893-1987) to friends, the reaction is often, “he doesn’t sound particularly Spanish”. This is somehow a requirement of Spanish composers; I’ve yet to see similar charges brought against, say, Boulez for faint Frenchness, or Pärt for evincing insufficient Estonianism. It could simply be that Mompou’s Catalan origins explain this phenomenon, but Albéniz was also Catalan. The difference is that he sought out Andalusian and Castillian flavours, whereas Mompou seemed more contentedly Catalan. Three Catalan folk songs, El Noy de la Mare, El Testament d’Anelia & Canço del Lladre open his ‘Canço i Danzas’ numbers 3, 8 & 14 respectively.



Mompou’s musical language? Thematic development didn’t really feature; variation fulfilled his dramatic needs. His harmony was unmistakably tonal, though you have to peer through lovely mists to site the tonic. Modes, pedals (frequently offbeat), chords built on fourths, widely spaced, extended ‘jazz’ harmonies all conspire to cloud the harmony of what is essentially simple and often innocent music.

The following example illustrates several of these points.

‘Tres Variacions’ has a short, almost childlike modal (and unbarred) Tema. The first variation, Els Soldats (The Soldiers) ends with a little fanfare whose last three notes are harmonised in fourths. Offbeat pedal notes add interest without compromising simplicity. The second variation, Cortesia has something of French Music Hall in its sad waltz gestures. I like the little pun in the score where the movement depicting ‘courtesy’ ends with the words “répétez, je vous prixe”. Mompou veers into much more modern harmony in the closing Nocturne, almost as though Keith Jarrett were paying tribute to Mompou’s beloved Chopin. The wide-spaced pianism seems to owe much to Chopin who, like Mompou, wrote mostly for piano. Notice how the appearance of a yearning inner-melody necessitates a third stave.

For more direct tribute to Chopin I heartily recommend this:

Or, again, does the subsiding nature of this remind you of a certain Prelude in E minor Op 28 No 4?

Pianists – a challenge: try to emulate the sound of bells while alphabetically avoiding Big Ben, Christmas carols, Ding-Dong etc. etc. Mompou worked in his fathers bell foundry and the resonant ratios rang on? Try the opening of this:

or the closing bars of this:

Mompou’s magnum opus is arguably his ‘Música Callada’ published in four volumes from 1959-67. The puzzlingly oxymoronic combo of silent music can be overcome simply by switching the notion of silence for stillness: ten of its twenty-eight short movements begin with a single note; ‘Calme’ and ‘Lento’ dominate tempo indications. My personal favourite is XIX Tranquilo. Its quiet yearning seems informed by that most searching of ‘jazz chords’ the minor with major 7th – all the more yearning here for the wide spacing.

Alan Coady

Further reading:
Le Jardin Retrouve. the Music of Frederic Mompou

Alan began his musical studies, aged six, on the piano and switched to guitar aged eleven. After studying at the then Huddersfield Polytechnic, Alan began life as a peripatetic guitar instructor for East Lothian Council (Scotland) where he remains to this day. Huddesfieldian modernism exerts a lasting influence and favourite piano listens include the works of Ligeti, Kurtág and Messiaen. Favourite pianists include Piotr Anderszewksi, Steven Osborne and jazz giant Brian Kellock. 

L is for Liszt

by Dr Michael Low

A second article on this giant of piano music 

According to all reliable accounts, Liszt was the first true celebrity pianist in the history of Western art music. He was the embodiment of the Romantic Era: the sublime and the ridiculous, the diabolical and the virtuous, the transcendental and the mediocre, and no other composer in the 19th century had as diverse a compositional output. Liszt’s physical beauty, musical gift and striking stage persona combined for an intoxicating cocktail of the visionary, genius, sex, lust, snobbery, vanity, religion and literature. In short, he was Faust, Mephisto, Casanova, Byron, Mazeppa and St Francis all in one. Had cyberspace and social media existed in the 19th century, the tagline for Liszt would probably have been #Sex #Drugs #Classical Music #FranzLiszt.

Liszt was the first musician to have the piano placed in profile, so that the audience would be able to see his facial expression. He was also the first pianist to perform from memory, flouting the traditional view that to perform without music is a sign of disrespect to the composer. As a composer, Liszt’s output consists of over one thousand works. And until today only the Australian pianist Leslie Howard has recorded all of Liszt’s piano works (for Hyperion). Liszt’s one-movement symphonic poems, as well as the late piano pieces, were seen by many as works which were to have significant influence on the next generation of composers. Some argued that Liszt’s experimental use of harmonies (in particular in the late works) was prophetic in its foreshadowing of atonality, paving the way for the works of Scriabin, Debussy and Schoenberg in the early part of the 20th century.

LisztLiszt’s life and music have been the subject of numerous film adaptations. On one hand, Charles Vidor’s Song Without End (1960) won an Academy Award for Best Musical Score, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture. On the other hand, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975), based on the novel Nélida, written by Liszt’s first important mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, was notorious for its re-imagining of Wagner as a vampire (yes you read that correctly…) and its use of giant phalluses, reminiscent of Japan’s Shinto Kanamara Matsuri. One of the 20th century’s greatest pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, played the role of Franz Liszt in the 1952 Russian film entitled The Composer Glinka, while Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody in C Sharp Minor was immortalised by the evergreen animated duo of Tom and Jerry.

Recommended listening (all of which can be found on YouTube)

Années de Pèlerinage (Books 1 and 2): Lazar Berman

Vallée d’Obermann (from the 1st Book of Années de Pèlerinage): Claudio Arrau

Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (from the 3rd Book of Années de Pèlerinage): Claudio Arrau

Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses): Claudio Arrau

Two Legends: St François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux and St François de Paule marchant sur les flots: Alfred Brendel

Mephisto Waltz No. 1: Evgeny Kissin

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp Minor: Benno Moiseiwitsch

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D Flat Major: Martha Argerich

Liebestraume No. 3 in A flat Major: Frederic Lamond

Études de concert No. 2 in F Minor (La leggierezza): Martha Argerich

Études de concert No.3 in D Flat Major (Un sospiro): Frederic Lamond

6 Grandes Études de Paganini: Andre Watts (Live Recording from Japan 1988)

12 Études d’exécution trancendente: Lazar Berman (Live Recording from Milan 1976)

12 Études d’exécution trancendente: Boris Berezovsky (Live Recording from Roque d’Antheron 2002)

Études d’exécution trancendente No. 5 in B Flat Major (Feux Follet): Vladimir Ashkenazy

Ballade No.2 in B Minor: Vladimir Horowitz (Live Recording from The Met 1981)

Piano Sonata in B minor: Mikhail Pletnev

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Flat Major: Martha Argerich

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major: Sviatoslav Richter

Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte: Louis Lortie

Piano Transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture: Jorge Bolet

Piano Transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod (from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde): Michael Low

 

As a teenager, Michael Low studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke. An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

E is for……

No pianist’s alphabet would be complete without an entry on the Étude or “study” – the short piece, often considerably difficult, designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique.

The practice of writing études developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano études has continued into the modern era with composers such as Ligeti, Cage, Kapustin and Glass.

The opening of Chopin’s Etude in E major, Op 10, No. 3

Many people swear by études and studies as part of their daily practise regimen and some sets of études enjoy near-legendary or infamous status such as those by Czerny, Hanon and Brahms. Easier études by Heller and Burgmüller, which suit the intermediate pianist, offer technical challenges within an interesting and enjoyable piece. Debussy pokes fun at Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum in his Dr Gradus ad Parnassum but he also wrote a series of études which present different technical challenges within each piece, thereby following in Chopin’s footsteps.

Exercises should never be practised mindlessly. Try to play even the most dry exercises musically and appreciate how such exercises relate to actual repertoire. Having submitted to exercises by Cramer and Czerny as a young pianist, I now eschew such studies and prefer to create exercises out of the music I’m working on, though I have found Brahms’ studies useful.

Chopin’s études are incredibly satisfying to play because of the composer’s deep appreciation of the mechanics of the pianist’s hand and the desire to play beautiful music.

Frances Wilson

Exams

To do them, or not to do them? As a piano teacher, I’m amazed how the word can cause a pupil to shiver, even before they know what it’s like to take a music exam! It seems that human instinct often hones in on the negative feelings before the positive ones, and in the case of music exams, this is clearly not helpful.

The bizarre thing about music exams is that they are treated as a permanent record, but they are only measuring one performance at one moment in time. One of the things I’ve learnt as a professional performer is that every performance will be different and that some will be ‘better’ than others, no matter how hard you try to make all of them your best yet.

Exams also invite direct comparison between people, which can be awkward. I’ve had pupils who work hard and play extremely musically and convincingly, yet their fear or lack of enjoyment in performing affects their willingness to perform in public, or their marks if they take an exam. You can tell them ‘til the cows come home that there is as much value in their playing as that of their friend who regularly gets distinctions in exams, but they will struggle to believe you.

On the other hand, some of the best work my pupils have done is when they’ve had the deadline and motivation of an exam. They seem to prefer taking an exam to giving an informal performance amongst friends and peers, precisely because they’ll get a certificate at the end of it! Teachers often tell stories in disbelief of parents who have provided the books for the next grade straight after an exam has been sat. But it was much more memorable when a reluctant performing pupil of mine sat her Grade 1 and straight away asked when she could start on work on her Grade 2.

In amongst studying other repertoire and taking up other opportunities to perform, exams are a great learning tool. As well as motivation, exams encourage disciplined preparation – a valuable skill for life, never mind learning an instrument. I’ve had some of the greatest laughs when a pupil and I have been working in great detail, or at a great pace, because we’re inspired to achieve our best together.

Controversially, I believe the marked results are not the thing. Of course, we all like to know what someone else thinks of our performance, and it’s extremely useful for teachers, pupils and parents to have an independent view on our musical performance. But for me, the best result is the personal and musical development of each pupil, and their awareness of that. I’ve been more proud of a pupil scraping a pass at Grade 5 than others achieving distinctions – because I understand the amount of effort and work that each pupil has put in. You can’t beat the beaming smile of a pupil who realises they’ve worked really hard and it was worth it. If an exam can bring wide grins, then let’s remember that and talk about it instead of shivering and creating anxiety.

Elspeth Wyllie, pianist, accompanist and coach, teacher

elspethwyllie.co.uk

C is for…..

As we continue through the pianist’s alphabet, next we land on C – which is actually a starting point for most beginner pianists.

C is for our first piano lesson: Middle C! The arbitrator of the two basic hand positions, the place we always return to, the sun our earthly hands rotate around.

C is also for cadence, those satisfying progressions that lead us to a harmonious end, and are so richly voiced on the piano’s many keys.

C is for Cat’s Fugue, Scarlatti’s Sonata for harpsichord that is often played on the piano. Which reminds me: C also stands for cats, who are so often part of a pianist’s practice time as they curl around us on the bench, paw the keys, and otherwise distract and complement our practice time!

C represents counterpoint, which brings me to Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ (which is a word worthy in itself, as it draws our attention to all of the piano-related instruments in the keyboard family). Bach’s fugues present the essence of counterpoint as the dancing lines of the different voices intersect across the keyboard.

C is for ‘Clair de Lune’, that most limpid and watercoloured  movement of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque.  

Lastly, C is for cantabile and colour, two of the most beautiful qualities of the piano. With our hands and our souls, we can produce that singing quality and an array of tonal color at the piano. The capacity for expression is infinite.

Written by Nadia Banna, piano teacher with TakeLessons (http://takelessons.com)  

 

Cantabile – there is no sound more wonderful nor more musical than that of a piano singing. Cantabile, playing in a smooth, singing style which imitates the human voice, is something all pianists strive for (or should strive for), and the ability to play cantabile well takes practise and a high level of artistry. Extreme tonal control is required to achieve a smooth singing and each pianist needs to develop a keen awareness of their own sound and the ability to listen to themselves and imagine the sound before they play. The fingertips provide clarity and focus, the equivalent to a singer’s articulation, and cling to the keys like suction pads or the feet of a gecko (to use an image favoured by the pianist Lang Lang). The firm finger-end is an integral part of playing because it supports the freely suspended weight of the arm. Guiding the whole process is, of course, the ear.

Opera singer Pauline Viardot, whom Chopin taught

The special cantabile sound which Chopin requires was modeled on Bel Canto, a style of singing popular at the time when Chopin was writing. In fact, the sound of this kind of cantabile is created by illusion: imagining the sound in your head before you play and then allowing fingers, arm and ear to guide you. More on tone control and cantabile playing here

Frances Wilson

 

B is for……

In 1901 a new concert hall opened in the West End, just north of Oxford Street. Small and intimate, it boasted superb acoustics, unprecedented comfort, and scheduled two hundred concerts a year, as London’s concert-going populace, benefitting from a revolution in entertainment and leisure, flocked to see Frank Merrick and Leopold Godowsky, Artur Schnabel, Chopin specialist Vladimir de Pachmann, and ‘Valkyrie of the Piano’, the Venezuelan lady pianist Teresa Careno.

This was Bechstein Hall, owned by the C Bechstein piano manufacturer whose London showroom and retail outlet was next door on Wigmore Street.

The C. Bechstein piano factory was founded on 1 October 1853 by Carl Bechstein who had studied and worked in France and England as a piano craftsman, before he became an independent piano maker. He set out to build a piano able to withstand the demands place upon the instrument by the virtuosi of the time, such as Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s son-in-law, Hans von Bulow, gave the first public performance on a Bechstein grand piano in 1857. Along with Steinway & Sons and Bluthner, Bechstein became one of the world’s pre-eminent piano makers. Bechstein pianos were praised for their colourful tonal palette, warm sound and delicate nuances. Pianists and composers who favoured Bechstein’s pianos include Liszt, Brahms, Scriabin and Debussy.

In 1916 Bechstein Hall closed, its German owners unable to sustain the business during the First War, and in 1917 the hall reopened with its current name – Wigmore Hall. Since its opening, the hall, in both its incarnations, has enjoyed a reputation for world class chamber music and it attracts the finest international pianists.

When I first “met” and played my 1913 Bechstein Model A grand piano, in the north London workshop of my piano tuner in March 2013, I knew I had to own this instrument. Not only for its smooth touch, warm, mellow tone, rich bass, sweet singing treble, and beautiful rosewood case, but also for its association with my favourite London concert venue – Wigmore Hall. It was, and remains, a serendipitous meeting, and it is quite possible that my piano was sold from the Wigmore Street showroom.

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Frances Wilson

 

Bellies, Bass-lines and Bottoms

While thinking of something to write for the Pianist’s Alphabet series, I considered various parts of the piano that I would like to describe and was particularly taken with the belly. It’s not often that I hear pianists talk of the instrument’s belly, but it’s sound-board. The sound-board is arguably the most important part of the instrument, spanning the surface area of the casing (well, the majority of it) and being responsible for the instrument’s personal tonal quality and capability. Steinway & Sons have even created the ‘Diaphragmatic Soundboard’ which they liken to a diaphragm by tapering the thickness of the wood to maximise the soundboard’s efficiency. Here’s a link: http://www.steinway.com/news/articles/the-diaphragmatic-soundboard-the-heart-of-the-steinway-tone-color-and-richness/

But, I prefer the word ‘belly’! Belly = guts, where all the important stuff happens. If the belly of the piano is in perfect working order and designed sympathetically, then the resulting sound is vital, vibrant, and capable of huge tonal and dynamic range. Isn’t it the same with people?!

As for bass-lines, I’m a sucker for bass-lines, and it’s these that we feel most through our bellies. One of the most satisfying things to play and listen to is a descending bass-line, often with an ascending melody, when the tension is building and passions fly, often causing both players and listeners to feel a knot in the stomach and great excitement before the final arrival or release in the music. Ecstasy!! (This happens so many times in Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, or more gradually in the big climax in ‘Ondine’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.)

The bass-line underpins everything; it supports the melody and provides the foundation upon which harmony can develop, grounding both player and listener alike. To neglect a bass-line is tantamount to creating a pizza with sumptuous toppings, but paying no attention to the dough! (Apologies for the food analogy but it’s the first thing I think of when searching for parallels.)

Now, bottoms. I’ve already mentioned guts and foundations, but how can any of this happen without being firmly planted? With so much energy being propelled forward towards the instrument, a rooted bum is essential. Great Kung-Fu masters have always spoken of opposing forces increasing power and strength. (Yin and Yang.) If we are to apply this to piano playing, then in order to play to maximum power with minimum effort, as much attention needs to go down through the stool and in to the floor as it does through the thorax, arms, fingers and, ultimately, belly.

So to summarise, pay attention to the bass-line, feel firmly planted and when the music requires it, release both down into the floor and out through the piano, feeling it in your very core. When the piano responds accordingly and its belly rumbles, the music will come alive and everyone will be fulfilled.

Nadine André

http://nadineandre.com

http://www.trifarious.com