Guest post by Howard Smith


Edward Gregson (b.1945), is an English composer of instrumental and choral music, particularly for brass and wind ensembles, as well as music for the theatre, film, and television. He was principal of the Royal Northern College of Music and studied piano with Alan Bush at the Royal Academy, winning several prizes for composition. Gregson retired from academic life in 2008 to concentrate on composition. He continues to sit on a number of Boards relating to music education. He is a fellow at the RNCM, as well as at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. A major retrospective of his music was held in Manchester in 2002. 

Gregson’s Complete Music for Solo Piano has recently been recorded by Murray McLachlan on the NAXOS label. It includes the composer’s Album For My Friends (2011), Three Etudes (2020) , Four Pictures for piano duet (1982), Six Little Pieces (1982, rev. 1993) and the remarkable Piano Sonata in one movement (1983). Hidden among these works lies the utterly bewitching Friday a.m.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT 

How to describe a piece of music? Written in 1981, Gregson states that Friday a.m. was his response to the ‘emotional impact’ of listening to the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Indeed, Gregson does borrow from the first few notes of that glorious melody but thereafter heads in an entirely different direction. Murray McLachlan has described this as a ‘gradual metamorphosis into a lighter style, reminiscent of jazz, as though moving from a philharmonic hall in central Europe to a Manhattan Jazz club around 2am, when everything is subdued and transient.’ It’s a wonderful allusion. But there is nothing subdued about many of the passages of this music. Mahlerian it is. Lounge Jazz it is not, although as I will show, the music pays homage to many Jazz idioms. And does so with great subtlety; without the slightest trace of irony or pastiche. 

Having fallen in love with the piece on CD, I never expected to hear a live performance. Imagine how surprised and delighted I was that Murray McLachlan included it in his recital at the 2021 Chetham’s International Piano Summer School. His performance cemented my obsession with the music. Most striking, McLachlan’s ‘poco a poco stringendo’ starting at bar 39 as the music builds to the ‘ma appassionato’ in bar 48 was electrifying. I was hooked. I promptly placed the piece on my ‘must play’ list, even though the music lies beyond my current ‘grade’ when played to the max. 

THE MUSIC AND ITS HARMONY

Friday a.m. comes in at roughly six and half minutes of delicious harmony and melody. Primarily in the key of G, in common time, there are several contrasting sections. Each, however, reuses idioms, arpeggios and motifs that pervade the music from beginning to end. 

We know this is ‘about’ Jazz, but is not Jazz, from the outset. Gregson outlines in 3rds the chords C major 7 in bar 1, C major 9 in bar 2 and C major 11 in bar 3. Core Jazz colours. This then slides, via a G Minor+Major 7 chord (over Eb)  to A minor 9 (over 11), to rest on a C Lydian arpeggio (sharp 4, F#) in bar 6: n effect, D7 / C (4th inversion). This concludes (molto rit.) what I call the PRELUDE to Friday a.m., which later becomes an emotional REFRAIN at bar 57 over an expanded harmony. Clever. 

We leave bar 6 via the simple device of three ascending notes, D, E, F# sitting over an equally simple interval of a second, C+D, in the LH. The Dominant of G leads to our home key, G and the melody is laid out before us, recalling the Mahler theme. Gregson’s development of the theme takes us firmly into the realm of filmic music. There is great romance here. The harmony progresses as expected, from G, to C, to B-7, A minor, to G major 9. Here, and elsewhere, Gregson layers in Jazz colours. C is C6. A minor is the minor 11th. G major is G major 9. In each arpeggio, Gregson emphasises Jazz colours. But this is most definitely not the Blues. The only ‘blue note’ occurs in bar 30. And we never see a raw Blues progression. No root G7 here.  

Throughout the music, harmonies are laid out using arpeggios in the LH, semi-quavers. They twist and turn, sometimes rising, then falling, sometimes alternating direction. During my practice I found it hard to memorise the many variations. Fortunately they are repeated among the various passages. For example, bar 49, 50 and 51 LH is a ditto of bars 8, 9 and 10. But be careful, Gregson introduces twists, for example, in bar 53, the single notes used in bar 12 LH become parallel 3rds. 

STRUCTURE AND FORM

To the casual listener there are six major sections to the music. They do not correspond to any ‘standard’ form I know. 

The PRELUDE leads to the MAIN THEME. The theme is then RE-STATED (8va), after which there is a section dominated by 4-note (7th) chords in both hands. Let’s call it the CHORDAL ‘middle section’. This is followed by a DEVELOPMENT of the main theme, littered in the LH now by the ever increasing tempo of demi-semi-quavers and the effect of an ascending bass pedal point: A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G. From here the piece explodes into what I call a CADENZA, although classical musicians would likely not use this term. The MAIN THEME is then repeated ‘ma appassionato’ in fortissimo. Each melody note in the original RH is now explosively stated using four-note chords, after which the piece subsides to its original dynamics of mezzo-forte and finally to mezzo-piano during which we hear the REFRAIN of the opening motif … C major 7, C major 9 and C major 11. 

The piece ENDS as it began, resting (molto rit.) on that Lydian arpeggio (D7 / C), resolving to G. Gregson then asks us to play ‘Slower’ (bar 63) as he outlines G major 7 and G13, to rest finally on an A minor note cluster with added 4th, D. And as if this were not enough to stamp ‘Jazz’ on the music, Gregson adds, after a pause mark (bar 64), a final pp chord outline: a low G, followed by B, A, E and D. Each note is marked tenuto (deliberate emphasis) until the last D. The dominant. Yes, the G69 chord. It hangs in the air; as if smoke in a room. Friday a.m, as in McLachlan’s Manhattan.

IDIOMATICS

Note clusters are used at various points in the music, another Jazz idiom. For example in bar 9 we have G,A,C,D and E immediately followed by F#. Where such clusters occur the colours ring out as if to further emphasise the love Gregson clearly has for Jazz harmonies. As do I. 

Throughout the music, and often on the 4th beat of the bar, Gregson revels in 2 against 3, 3 against 2, 3 against 4 and 4 against 3 rhythms. I initially found these polyrhythms challenging, especially as the composer has a habit of holding over notes from the previous beat to the first of the triplets; for example in bars 11 and 12 and 18. Just to add insult to injury, Gregson also asks for a dotted rhythm in the LH against a triplet in the RH in bar 18. Tricky for me. 

CHALLENGES IN PERFORMANCE

There are many challenges in playing this music. I judge it to be Grade 8 +, possibly a first diploma level piece? All I know is that the music presented challenges I had not encountered before. Of these, the rapid LH passages, escalating over bars 37 to 44, tested my weak LH. Also the eight-note chords, split between two hands, in bars 26 to 36; some tricky harmony here. And last but not least, the ‘cadenza’ bars 44 to 48, yielding to the climax of the restatement of the main theme in RH chords. I was not familiar with how to play such an emphatic fortissimo, and do so without any harshness. The grandeur of the piece from bar 44 onward is hard to pull off. All dynamics are relative, I realise, but I find it hard to control the volume through the ‘stringendo’ section that precedes the climax. (And generally, there is a need to control dynamics from the outset, keeping the LH ‘mp’ as the motifs and themes are laid out one by one.)

Since I mentioned the LH, my teacher warned me about a “too literal statement of these semi-quaver groups”, what she described as a “childish rendition”. I think Gregson anticipated this with his instruction in bar 7: ‘a tempo (ma con rubato)’.  Yes, but as the music builds there is no chance for rubato and the notes in the LH arpeggios are integral to the harmony. Unless laid out somewhat ‘robotically’ the tension notes (Jazz) are less clear than they need be, I feel. I want to ‘hear’ those carefully placed 7ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. 

Pedalling is always a struggle for me. Fortunately, here it mostly consists of ‘down’ at the start of a bar and ‘up’ at the end, or before the 4th beat. The harmonies are rich and overlaid. And yet this can be too much as the dynamics build. Half pedalling may be needed. 

People use the term ‘colour’ variously. Whatever it means, there are clear points in the music where a shift of ‘colour’ or ‘tone’ is essential. The transition from bar 3 to bar 4 is one such example. The G major harmony shifts to Eb major, the minor 6th of a G minor scale. New colours are also required in bars 10, 15 and 17 and in later bars where similar harmony is used. 

CINEMATICS AND THE ADDED 4TH

I mentioned film music at the outset, and there are many ‘cinematic’ moments in Friday a.m. The most startling begins in bar 20. The melody is re-stated in a high register at 8va. The LH similarly moves to the treble clef and uses simple broken chords to outline the harmony. The effect is delicate, ethereal. As this passage dies away, we hear a suspended fourth pattern on the dominant; D sus 4. No third, Jazz style. This pattern is important later in the ‘cadenza’. The chord is D,G,A,D over three octaves, 11 demi-semi quavers in the time of one beat, repeated twice (bar 45 and 46) and punctuated by a trio of chords in both hands: first inversion of C6, D sus4, root C6. To create dramatic effect the chords are first expressed as a triplet, and then as even quavers. The pattern then leads to a bass descent starting on E. As the bass thunders out huge D octaves, we are led inevitably to a tumultuous D dominant 7th (bar 47) before the return to the main melody. Fortissimo. Friday a.m has reached its cinematic climax. 

In fact, the ‘modern’ sound of the suspended or ‘added’ fourth is sprinkled into many other places in the music, on minor chords. Bar 9 (and similarly in bar 50) is an example. Here, the chord is D minor 7 sus 4, a Jazz chord if ever there was one. 

MORE HARMONY

No analysis of Friday a.m. would be complete without attempting to describe the enigmatic ‘chordal’ MIDDLE SECTION, which begins on the fourth beat of bar 26. Spread between the two hands, eight-note chords lay out a rich harmonic landscape mezzo forte, as if heard indistinctly from afar. The impression is as if one were a passer-by, overhearing the music from the street, only dimly aware of rich music being played inside. 

Gregson uses three devices to achieve the indistinct effect. First, the chords are thick. Second, the use of triplets blur; despite any judicious use of the pedal. Third, as each harmonic statement is made, the LH descends to the far bass, outlining the harmony once again. Then two notes are struck as octaves in the RH, 8va. It’s a call and response motif (in bar 27 and again in bar 30). And it is here that the only ‘blue note’ is used, C#, the augmented fourth (tritone) in G. I may be being fanciful here, but I cannot escape the conclusion that the composer deliberately chose to place this solitary note solely for the passer-by in the street. Was Gregson saying: “if you had any doubt, this is Jazz”. It’s a wonderful illusion when set against the richly painted harmonies? And was the intermittent use of triple time in bars 28, 31, 32, 34 and 35 an attempt to paint this passage, the closest to Jazz in the work, in 7/4 time? It’s the only passage in which Gregson deviates from common time. 

The first (of four) harmonic ‘utterances’  are the chords A minor 9, B minor 7, C6, B minor 7. The voicings are achieved by using a root position chord in the LH and a first inversion chord in the RH. For example, to achieve a full A minor 9, use root A minor 7 in the LH and root C major 7 in the RH. Yes, that means both the 3rd and the 5th are doubled. Rules are there to be broken. Similar approach is taken to three more statements of harmony, taking us further into distinctly jazzy territory. In bar 29 we encounter C dominant 7 #9. In bar 31 we have F# minor 9 +11. And in bar 34 the thickness is increased once again. F# major 7 in the LH with Db major 7 in the RH.  It’s heady stuff but never a cliché. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

To play this music without care is relatively easy. To play this music as the score demands, amplifying the effect of each idiom used, is difficult. To explode through the cadenza (held back) and into the appassionato, and then to subside to the refrain of the opening motif, releasing the emotion, is a challenge for this adult returner. It demands a measured control of the ever-decreasing tempo and languid dynamics over the last eleven bars, all the way to the final notes of the spread G69 chord, each seemingly picked out of nowhere, as if the imaginary Jazz pianist is doodling, unaware that anyone is listening. Friday a.m.

Buy the score of Friday a.m https://www.wisemusicclassical.com/work/61304/Friday-am–Edward-Gregson/


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and the author of Note For Note: Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook 

Books about piano journeys are rare and valuable – especially those written from the perspective of the amateur player.

A new book, by late-returner pianist and ex-technologist Howard Smith, adds to the genre and does so in a surprising (and delightful) fashion. In this article I list the six books I have read, and compare and contrast the approach each (very different) author has taken in narrating their adventures in pianism. My reading list comprises:

1. Piano Notes, The hidden world of the pianist, Charles Rosen

2. Piano Lessons, Music, love & true adventures, Noah Adams

3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a forgotten passion in a Paris atelier, Thad Carhart

4. Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman

5. Play It Again, An amateur against the impossible, Alan Rusbridger

6. Note For Note, Bewitched, bothered & bewildered, Howard Smith


589578._uy200_Piano Notes, The Hidden World of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen (first published in the USA by The Free Press in 2002., republished by Penguin in 2004).

The late Charles Rosen, a distinguished concert pianist, music critic and author of The Classical Style and its sequel The Romantic Generation, provides an eloquent description of the ‘delights and demands’ of the piano. The author explores every aspect of the instrument, from the physical challenges of technique to the subtle art of creating a beautiful tone, to the culture and foibles of conservatories and contests. The book is structured as a set of connected essays, scholarly in approach but highly readable and accessible. I read this book when I was beginning a tentative return to the piano in my late 30s and found Rosen’s wisdom inspiring and insightful.

9780385318211_p0_v2_s260x420Piano Lessons, Music, Love & True Adventures, by Noah Adams. Published in 1997 (Delta/Random House), the book explores why a fifty one-year old man would suddenly decide he has to own a grand piano: a Steinway. Adams, a radio journalist and host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, sets out a month-by-month chronicle of one year spent pursuing his passion for the piano. The book is packed with anecdotes beyond the telling of his own story of obsession, covering such diverse worlds as Bach, Pop, boogie-woogie, and is littered with his recollection of meeting with or speaking to masters such as Glenn Gould, Leon Fleisher and George Shearing. Adams is a consummate writer, and as each month and season in his year long journey spins by, culminating in his surprise ‘Christmas Party performance’ of Schumann’s Traumerei from Scenes from Childhood, he reflects on what could have been. ‘There’s been a secret, hiding in my heart about this piano-learning endeavor: Perhaps I do have a talent and no one knows.’ Adam’s dedication is ‘For all who would play’. Written by an amateur pianist who sets himself on a path to master the piano, this book is an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read whose sentiments will resonate with others on a similar journey.

9781407016979The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart, became a New York Times Bestseller. First published in 2001 the book tells the story of how, while walking his children to school, the author chances upon an unassuming piano workshop in his Paris neighbourhood. Curious, he eventually wins the trust of the owner and is gradually introduced to the complexities of the engineering of pianos old and new, as well as the curiosities of the unique style of ‘trade’ in pianos between dealers, professionals and amateurs who wish to acquire distinctive and beautiful instruments. Along the way we learn much of the rich history and art of the piano, and the stories of those special people who care for them.

The parallel story is how the author returns to playing the piano by acquiring a Stingl grand piano and taking lessons himself – and here the “piano journey” once again resonates with those of us who have taken up, or returned to the instrument later in life.

It’s a captivating read, the boulevards and backstreets of Paris brought to life in an atmospheric and engaging narrative, and and author reveals a special awareness of the special attachment pianists, professional and amateur, have to their instruments. In an appendix titled ‘A Readers’ Guide’, Cahart explains how pianos occupy a special place in people’s lives. ‘Musically, they are unique,’ he explains. ‘But they are also just too big to ignore … Pianos are truly amazing receptacles of memory and emotion for many families’.

b45d34f1d09b64b19a931d666a4b8eecPiano Pieces, by Russell Sherman. Described by The New Yorker as ‘Startling … dreamily linked observations about the experience of piano playing and a thousand other unexpected subjects’. Sherman’s book is cerebral, esoteric and at times philosophical in its ruminations on the physical, metaphysical and emotional activity of playing the piano and being a pianist. It is packed with profound ponderings and thought-provoking insights, and although it is written by a professional pianist, it is relevant to anyone who plays and/or teaches the piano. For example, on coordination he says: ‘Coordination is what the teacher must begin and end with. As I stand next to my student I feel dangerously like a puppeteer trying to guide him or her through the vortex of ideas and feelings. I console myself in the realization that eventually students will internalise this role and learn to master their own fate’. In another ‘thought’ he simply writes: ‘When one plays Beethoven one must serve Beethoven. No, one must represent Beethoven. No, one must be Beethoven’. An unusual contemplation on the piano and what it means to “be” a pianist.

9780099554745Play It Again, An Amateur Against The Impossible, by Alan Rusbridger, is almost certainly the most well-known of the books in this niche genre. In 2010, the then editor of the Guardian newspaper, set himself an ‘almost impossible’ task: to learn, in the space of a year, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, considered one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire that inspires dread in many professional pianists. Written in the form of diary extracts, the book charts not only his adventures with the Ballade, a project he likens to George Mallory attempting to climb Everest “in tweed jacket and puttees”, but also an extraordinarily busy year for his newspaper (The Guardian) and the world in general: the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami, Wikileaks and the UK summer riots, and the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Enquiry. Despite this, somehow the author managed to find ‘twenty minutes practice a day’ – even if it meant practising in a Libyan hotel in the middle of a revolution. Much of the book is a glimpse into Alan Rusbridger’s “practice diary”, his day-to-day responses to learning the piece. For the serious amateur pianist and teacher, Rusbridger’s analysis, virtually bar-by-bar, is very informative, but you would want to have a copy of the score beside you as you read. There is also plenty of useful material on how to practice “properly” – something Rusbridger has to learn almost from scratch, with the guidance of, amongst others, eminent pianists such as Murray Perahia and Lucy Parham – and how to make the most of limited practice time. Alongside this, we also meet piano restorers and technicians to peer into the rarefied world of high class grand pianos (Steinway, Fazioli), as well as neurologists (with whom Rusbridger discusses the phenomenon of memory), piano teachers, pianists all over the world who have played or are studying the piece, other journalists, celebrities, politicians, dissenters, and Rusbridger’s friends and family.

Another aspect which comes across very clearly throughout is the pleasure of music making and its therapeutic benefits, for performer and listener, and the book is very much a hymn to this. Like the Ballade itself, the book hurtles towards its finale: will the author learn the piece, memorise, and finesse it in time for the concert….?

From Rusbridger’s elevated platform as a high profile journalist with a myriad connections, the book was an immense success when it was first published, due in no small part, one suspects, because the text will appeal as much to those with an interest in current events as it does for amateur pianists chasing a similar virtuosic feat of pianism.

n4nfrontcoverAnd so we come to the new kid on the block: Howard Smith’s Note For Note, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Released in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Smith’s book was described by amateur pianist and performing arts clinician Marie McKavanagh as, ‘A brutally honest personal testimony of a human experience that enriches life via the intimate physical act of working with a musical instrument.’ Over thirty-eight chapters, covering a period of just three years, Smith charts his unexpected transformation from software-geek to musician or, as he points it ‘from the digital to the analogue: from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance’. Covering topics as diverse as lead sheets, mental performance, unblocking, the musical ‘fourth’, the circle of fifths, two-five-one progressions, modes and chord-scale theory, theory and practice is blended with what Victoria Williams of MyMusicTheory called ‘captivating story-telling’. The result is a unique memoir and simultaneously an educational text for all amateur pianists, described by educator Andrew Eales (who blogs as Pianodao) as ‘Essential reading for 2021’. However, Note For Note is not a textbook; nor is it a novel. Smith calls it a ‘musical fable’; a message as much about how not to go about learning the piano as it is a guide to best practice. The author claims that every word is true, and I have no reason to doubt him. In the song-writing chapters, for example, Smith enumerates the process of his work with his teachers in composition and lyric-writing, presenting every chord symbol and poetic line as it happened. (One day, he tells me, he will release this music.) Smith’s story (and writing) unfolds as it happened, or as he says, ‘from the theory to the practice’. Devoid of any artifice, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is depth of wisdom it embodies for someone who, at the time of writing, had only been playing for a couple of years. We learn that Smith is the proverbial ‘late returning’ amateur, and this reality (and his narrowing ‘window of opportunity’) weighs heavily on him at key points in the text. He returned to the piano, leaving the IT career he loved, after a ‘gap’ of forty-five years, having only achieved a modest ‘grade three’ as a child; a child engineer who found the mechanism of the piano and its ‘physics of sound’ more interesting than any disciplined ‘practice’. Note For Note is a book written by an amateur pianist for amateur pianists, especially those, like Smith, who struggle to make the transition from ‘intermediate’ to ‘advanced’. The author does eventually learn what it means to ‘be a musician’, and you believe him: concert pianist Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music, called it a ‘A truly inspirational odyssey’. As to how the book came to be written, that must remain strictly ‘no spoilers’.

***

To summarise, each of these books charts the mystery that is our “piano journey” but do so in very different and distinctive ways. Each demands your attention, offering up a rich brew of ideas, topics and insights that will help every pianist (or teacher) at any level to advance their own art and practice.