This atmospheric piece for solo piano, whose Afrikaans subtitle ‘Wind oor die Branders’ translates as Wind over the Waves, is by Richard Pantcheff (b.1959). It comes from ‘Nocturnus’, a suite of six pieces written for different instruments; the final work in the suite is ‘4th December 1976’, written in memory of Benjamin Britten on the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Pantcheff was mentored in composition by Benjamin Britten in the last years of Britten’s life, and his music displays a distinct affinity with Britten’s soundworld, as well as that of earlier English composers including Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi and Elizabeth Lutyens.
A prolific composer of choral, organ, chamber and instrumental works, Richard Pantcheff was trained in choral music and composition from an early age, initially as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral, and studied music at Christ Church, Oxford, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier. His music has been widely performed and praised for its originality and technical brilliance, combined with intellectual and emotional depth.
I discovered this piece through ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, a recent recording by British pianist, and friend of mine, Duncan Honeybourne. Duncan is a keen advocate of English music and a champion of lesser-known repertoire, and his recording on which ‘Nocturnus V’ appears (together with Pantcheff’s substantial Piano Sonata, of which he is dedicatee) contains no less than eight world premiere recordings.
The piece is minimalist in style. Its title ‘Nocturnus’ obviously suggests a Nocturne or night piece, and although this work makes stylistic reference to Chopin’s Nocturnes in its flowing accompaniment (almost continuous semiquavers to suggest both waves and wind), it is perhaps closer to Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ (which also appears on ‘De Profundis Clamavi’) and ‘Night’ from Holiday Diary in atmosphere, harmonic language and some of its textures. But while the middle section of Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ is unsettled, full of curious nocturnal twitterings and scurrying, Pantcheff exchanges the fluid semiquavers for a rising chordal figure in triplets which climaxes in fortississimo (fff) chords high up in the piano’s register. The effect is hymn-like and joyful. The music then subsides and pauses, before the semiquaver ‘waves’ return, now in the bass, with soft, piquant chords in the treble.
Although not particularly difficult (I would suggest this piece is around Grade 5-6 standard), the challenge for the player comes in retaining evenness in the semiquaver figures and sustaining long notes in the other register. Sparing use of the pedal will avoid muddying the sound in these sections, while the middle section requires greater projection and brightness of sound. It’s a satisfying piece to play as it offers the player plenty of scope for expression and “sound painting” to portray the music’s inspiration.
‘Nocturnus V’ by Richard Pantcheff, played by Duncan Honeybourne
Guest posts are invited for this series. If you would like to submit an article about repertoire you are working on or enjoy playing, please get in touch
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World Piano Day, an annual worldwide event founded by a group of likeminded people, takes place on the 88th day of the year (29th March this year), because of the number of keys on the instrument being celebrated.
This playlist mostly comprises music I’ve learnt or am learning/revisiting, or that I simply like. I’ve made it collaborative so that others can contribute and between us we can celebrate World Piano Day, the wondrous instrument that is the piano, and its enormous breadth of repertoire
This quote from a Meet the Artist interview with pianist Antoine Préat perfectly expresses my relationship with many composers and their music.
When I returned to playing the piano seriously in my later 30s, after a break of some 20 years, there were pieces which I felt I “should” be playing but which never felt comfortable to me. This feeling grew when I co-founded a piano meetup group where members played all sorts of repertoire. I envied those who seemed so at home with the music of Chopin or Ravel, two composers whose piano music I adore, but which does not necessarily love me back.
Of course, we should never feel obligated to play certain pieces or composers out of a sense of duty; the “tyranny of the shoulds” is often inculcated in our childhood music lessons, reinforced in music college, and – for the professional musician, further emphasised by teachers, peers, agents and critics – or for the amateur, at piano clubs and on courses. Students and those at the beginning of their career probably feel the pressure of this sense of obligation most acutely, and it takes confidence to stand firm against the tide of opinion that says one should be playing certain Beethoven sonatas, etudes by Chopin and Liszt, or the concertos of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Grieg in order to be recognised and endorsed by those who may help further one’s professional career and reputation.
We’re very lucky as pianists; we have a vast repertoire to choose from and this means there is music within it to suit our varied, wide-ranging tastes. It is interesting to note that some of the greatest pianists have chosen to focus on a fairly narrow corner of the repertoire – for example, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff or Maria Joao Pires. It really isn’t necessary to have an affinity with or be able to play everything, though of course there are some pianists who seem perfectly at ease with a very broad sweep of repertoire, namely Maurizio Pollini or Marc-André Hamelin. Stephen Hough is quite open about his “uneasiness” about playing the music of J S Bach and I think it is a mark of a pianist’s honesty to admit that certain repertoire or composers do not suit them.
Our affection for the music we choose to play is, I believe, one of the greatest assets in the learning process. It is what helps to keep us focussed and ensures we will return to the music day in day out to practice and refine it. If you don’t love the music you’re playing, it’s unlikely it will love you back, and the practice of practising will feel arduous and challenging. I recall feeling like this quite a lot of the time when I was having piano lessons as a child, where my first teacher would always select the music I was to learn, without giving me any choice (when I taught piano, I made sure my students played music they liked and enjoyed). It was only when I had passed my grade 5 piano exam, and moved to a new teacher, that I had the foundations of technical facility and the confidence to explore repertoire on my own. It was at this time that my love of Schubert’s piano music developed – and it remains amongst my most favourite music still.
One of the great pleasures of being an amateur pianist, perhaps the greatest pleasure, is that you are not – or shouldn’t be – under any obligation to play music because someone else said you “should”! Of course sometimes a teacher will suggest repertoire which they feel may help with an aspect of technique or simply that it may appeal to your musical taste and sensibilities – and a good teacher should know and appreciate their students’ tastes. But if it doesn’t appeal, have the confidence to say “it’s not for me”. It’s also worth bearing in mind that our tastes change, and, as our technical facility improves, repertoire we previously loved but might not have been able to play, becomes more accessible.
If the music doesn’t love you back sufficiently for you to play it yourself, simply enjoy hearing others play it – on disc, on the radio, in concerts and via streaming services.
The author Umberto Eco had a library of an astonishing 30,000+ books, most of which he had not, and probably never did read. Nassim Nicholas Talib (author of TheBlack Swan) calls this an “anti-library” and believes it represents an ongoing intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge, for all those unread books contain what one does not know yet. The more one reads, the more one’s knowledge increases; the books one hasn’t read are a research tool, a means to extend one’s knowledge further.
The same can perhaps be said for musical scores. On the bookcase in my piano room are many scores of music which I may never play, but I have acquired those scores out of curiosity, and many of them represent, for me at least, an acknowledgement that my musical knowledge continues to grow. Some scores are also research tools, purchased for their detailed notes and annotations rather than the music itself; others I bought because I simply wanted to possess them. Some I have been sent by composers, hopeful that I may play their music. All of them are the music I haven’t played yet.
Years ago, long before I started writing this blog and interviewing musicians on a regular basis, I went to interview a concert pianist at his home in the leafy suburbs. One wall of his piano room/office was filled with scores, floor to ceiling – dusky blue Henle, brick-red Weiner Urtext and pale green Peters editions and many more. This collection, including some very well-thumbed, much-used editions, represented a lifetime’s work in the profession, but I suspect there were more than a few scores that may never be opened, yet they had their place in this library as the music he hadn’t played yet.
In the world today, knowledge can be accrued incredibly easily and quickly via the internet, and this accrual of knowledge becomes a compulsive need to enable us to rise in the hierarchy of perceived “intelligence” or “knowledgeability”. I am always rather suspicious of people who tell me they have played all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, this completist approach suggesting a certain lack of humility, as if to say “that’s it, I have mastered the instrument and its literature!”. I prefer to subscribe to a more humble approach, based on the knowledge that a piece of music is never truly “finished”. People who lack this humility may enjoy a sense of pride at having ‘conquered’ Beethoven, without acknowledging that learning is an ongoing process.
The music we haven’t played yet may well be the most interesting in our repertoire, for it offers new possibilities in broadening our musical knowledge, extending our technical and artistic facilities, and widening our cultural horizons. It is a sign of an ever-expanding understanding of our competence and a necessary spur to mastery.
In fact, all the music we haven’t played yet represents a wondrous opportunity – it is just waiting to be explored!
“perhaps the most impassioned music I have ever written.”
Robert Schumann writing to Clara Wieck, March 1838
Never one for disguising his emotions, Robert Schumann wore his heart on his sleeve and his music reflects his joy at being alive – and of being in love. His Fantasie in C, composed in 1836, is a remarkable display of soul-bearing, a piece imbued with passionate and unresolved longing, and the heart-fluttering panoply of emotions from ecstasy to agony which being in love provokes. It was written during a particularly long separation from his beloved Clara Wieck, at a time when their future together was far from certain.
The Fantasie in C is a love letter in music, a culmination of passion, virtuosity and delicacy. No salon sweetmeat, this is a highly demanding, sweepingly romantic large-scale work which pianists approach with trepidation.
Originally intended as a tribute to Beethoven and eventually dedicated to Franz Liszt, the Fantasie is cast in three movements. It alludes to sonata form but like its dedicatee’s B-minor Sonata, Schumann dissolves the formal structure to create a work of striking improvisatory freedom which heightens its emotional impact and poetic narrative. The ‘Clara theme’ which pervades the work is heard immediately in the descending octaves of the right hand. The music is an intriguing mix of grandeur and intimacy: the opening statement, a rolling dominant 9th chord, expresses the full depth of the composer’s passion and the music moves from a state of yearning to one of subdued tenderness before the restatement of the opening. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”
“It makes me hot and cold all over,” Clara wrote of the march-like second movement, which grows more intense (and difficult to play) by its continuous dotted rhythms. It’s a majestic outpouring of joy which reaches its zenith in the exuberant coda, whose celebratory leaps (marked Viel bewegter – “with much movement”) would give even the most practised virtuoso some anxious moments.
Sublimely beautiful, tender and intimate, the third movement is an extended song without words, with ravishing diversions into the remote keys of A-flat and D-flat major which create an extraordinary sense of time suspended. In this movement the passion may be downplayed but it is no less powerfully felt. Falling motifs (drawn from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto), and melodies of intense poignancy give way to a section of delicate tenderness, a waltz in all but name with 2 voices – treble and bass – singing together. One can almost picture Robert and Clara clasped in a deep embrace. The coda is an ecstatic declaration, gradually increasing in speed, before pulling back to Adagio for the close and three hushed C-major chords which are at once peaceful and yet tinged with sadness.
John Pitts’ somewhat unusual book How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano is designed for adventurous pianists. Indian raags have an extraordinary musical heritage dating back several centuries (from the area that is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) – a truly unique musical genre of fascinating melodic beauty and rhythmic intricacy – freely combining elaborate composed melodies with carefully rehearsed improvisation. But now the amazing world of Indian raags has been opened up in a sympathetic but thorough reinvention for piano solo (or duet or two pianos) by an award-winning British composer.
In this guest post, John explains how his fascination with Indian raags began, leading eventually to his new book…..
My fascination in Indian raags (also spelled raga/rag) was sparked back in 1994-95 during a gap year in Pakistan before going on to study Music at Bristol and Manchester Universities. I had the great pleasure of several late night music sessions in a rural farming village in the Punjab, with local amateur musicians and a visiting classically-trained and highly accomplished ‘radio singer’, known to me only as ‘Ustaad’ – an Urdu term of respect. He accompanied himself on a harmonium – a little equal-temperament reed organ with the bellows pumped by his left hand. Drone notes were held down in the mechanism and his right hand loosely doubled some of his sung melody. Our generous host, a keen music enthusiast, provided the percussion layer on a pair of tabla. It was enthralling music, exotic to my youthful ears, gradually developing from a slow and atmospheric exploration of a tiny handful of notes to fast and frantic, highly rhythmic, full of passion and energy and intoxicating vocal virtuosity. The following year I had a few sitar lessons with Baluji Shrivastav in London – on an instrument I’d bought in Lahore’s music bazaar.
Both as pianist and composer I found an affinity with this music. There’s a peacefulness (and a certain self-indulgence) which I love – a focussed and absorbing stillness – in slowly improvising, with an evocative scale only gradually emerging, initially without the restrictions of a regular pulse. There are beautiful, richly ornamented melodies, and the organic sense of journey and destination. Then comes the thrashing rhythmic drive and the rapturous metric games, the fast and the furious. For the performer the pleasures bear many of the hallmarks of intelligent free jazz, along with a rich eastern mystique.
As composer I explored various aspects of Indian musical thinking in a number of my own pieces, in 2011 culminating in a virtuosic piano duet RaagGezellig. This sounds partly improvised but is actually through-composed within a fairly typical raag structure. While composing that duet, extensive googling of ‘piano’ plus ‘raag‘ or ‘raga‘ resulted in very little. Harmoniums have been used by Indian classical musicians for the past 150 years; pianos on the other hand have generally only gained a small foothold in Indian pop and in Bollywood film references to western classical music – but not in raags – the highest classical musical art-form of India.
The raag is a genre of highly ornate, partly-improvised music with a typical set of conventions and a typical structure. The nearest equivalent western musical term might be a cross between ‘air’ (a composition dominated by melody) and ‘sonata’ (a musical form with established conventions). The word raag literally means ‘colour’ and from that also ‘passion’ or ‘emotion’. Each individual, named raag is defined by a set of musical ingredients which determine its distinct ‘colour’. Raags are typically played by a melody instrument (or voice) accompanied by a drone instrument and rhythmic percussion, with performances lasting anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours.
Englishman William Bird published from Calcutta his “Airs of Hindustan” way back in 1789 – a collection of short keyboard pieces in a European classical style using Indian melodies (albeit largely major scale) that he’d collected. The result was European music with a slight Indian twist. Subsequently there have been plenty of other musicians – classical composers through to jazz and rock guitarists – who have found a fascination with music from the east and who have created European music inspired by features of Indian music.
But in the past very few years there has been a newly emerging development, on Youtube at least, which has quite suddenly featured a number of musicians, both Indian/Pakistani and European/American, playing classical raags on a piano – ie: using the piano as an Indian instrument playing truly Indian music – not some kind of crossover or simply one genre of music influenced by another. I’d recommend looking up videos of Utsav Lal, a brilliant young raga pianist from Scotland.
As a secondary school music teacher I wrote a simple piano version of Rag Desh in 2013to help our GCSE students develop an understanding of how raags work. From there came the idea of a bigger piano book containing a number of raags plus instruction on typical ways to improvise on the different sections of musical material. That summer, the book’s scope and size quickly grew because there are countless different and interesting raags to choose from – so many exotic scales, so many characterful motivic permutations and interesting time signatures and rhythmic cycles (talas). Now in December 2016 the finished 258-page book is a collection of 24 raags – reflecting the idea that individual raags are associated with a particular time of day. As well as the sheet music,there are loads of musical examples and a section of ‘Pick and Mix Ingredients’.
The purpose of “How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano” is first and foremost to open up the astonishing world of Indian classical music to pianists from western classical or jazz traditions who otherwise have no easy way to engage with Indian raags. The aim is to help enable you to perform a (pretty much) authentic, improvised raag, having understood the structure and having practised using, playing around with, and generally enjoying the key raag ingredients, and immersing yourself in a whole new emotional experience. I also hope that some more adventurous pianists will be encouraged to develop the raag tradition further in interesting new directions. The book is for good amateur pianists through to virtuosic professionals. It is suitable for any pianist who enjoys discovering new music, or who has an interest in music from other cultures, or who knows the pleasure of jazz noodling and wants to explore a rewarding and fresh (but centuries-old) form of improvisation.
What exactly is a raag?
At the age of 18 it was difficult for me to get my head around what a raag is, because as a concept it is really rather different to any western music. Western music is written by a composer, who chooses the notes – the pitches, the rhythms and the order they go in etc etc, it is all written down, and the completed piece of music has a title by which it is identified and copyrighted. Performers then play (more-or-less) what the composer has written. But traditional raags just don’t work like that. If ‘Raag Desh’ is listed in a concert programme, for example, all an informed audience can tell from that is that the performance is likely to contain a set of conventions and musical ideas that are historically associated with that raag – ie: improvisation using a particular scale, particular rising and falling versions of that scale, a particular set of little musical motifs etc etc. It does not specify the key, time signatures, rhythms, tempi, character, mood etc. And it probably doesn’t tell us anything that is affected by copyright laws – for instance it doesn’t tell us the name of the tune(s) being used, or who composed it. It is about as specific as saying that the performer is going to play ‘a boogiewoogie blues’
The term ‘Raag Desh’ conveys only this approximate set of historical musical ideas and conventions. This approximate set of ideas is then used by different performers as the starting point for creating a whole range of very different pieces, ie: live performances. Each of these pieces/performances is named ‘Raag Desh’ (despite frequently using completely different melodies), and on paper is distinguishable from the numerous other ‘Raags Desh’ only by the name of the performer and date of performance. To make matters worse, the pre-composed melody (the gat) rarely even has a name (unless it is taken from a song) and is not usually identified anyway, so you don’t know whether it is a variant of an old traditional melody or a newly composed one (by the performer or anyone else). Countless melodies may be associated with a particular raag. To help avoid this issue in “How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano”, as well as the Indian name I have given appropriate English titles to each of the 24 raags, which I hope my readers will find attractive and evocative. These titles have two functions – first to help you quickly capture the right atmosphere when learning the music, and second, as usual in western classical music, to give a formal identity to these particular melodies and raag adaptations – not least for the benefit of the Performing Right Society – I’ve got kids to feed!
John Pitts is a British composer who lives in Bristol, England, with his wife and four children. He composes mostly chamber music, especially for piano solo and duet, in styles perhaps best summarised as melodic, motoric, motif-driven, jazz-tinged, post-minimal impressionism. His pieces for two pianists have been performed at concerts and festivals in several European countries, Armenia, Australia, Russia, Ukraine and the USA, including in March 2015 a concert dedicated to his music in Perpignan’s “Festival Prospective 22ème siècle” by French duo Émilie Carcy and Matthieu Millischer.
His 2009 album Intensely Pleasant Music: 7 Airs & Fantasias and other piano music by John Pitts, performed by Steven Kings, was released to critical acclaim – receiving a 5 star review in Musical Opinion Magazine, several 4 star reviews including the Independent newspaper, with descriptions such as “beautiful, moving and relaxing”, “delicious”, “lovely”, “colossal… stunning and seriously impressive”, “great character and emotional integrity”, “exciting stuff all round… toes – prepare to tap.”
John studied at Bristol and Manchester Universities, under composers Wyndham Thomas, Adrian Beaumont, Raymond Warren, Geoffrey Poole, John Casken, John Pickard and Robert Saxton, and briefly with Diana Burrell in a COMA Composer Mentor scheme. He won the 2003 Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and two of his chamber pieces were shortlisted by the Society for the Promotion of New Music. He has also written music for four plays and two short operatic works – “Crossed Wires” (Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 1997), and “3 Sliced Mice” (commissioned by Five Brothers Pasta Sauces). He writes music for Christian worship, with two hymns on Naxos CDs recorded by his eldest brother composer Antony Pitts and Tonus Peregrinus, including one in Faber’s The Naxos Book of Carols. In 2006 Choir & Organ magazine commissioned “I will raise him up at the last day” for their new music series.
John was the secretary of the Severnside Composers Alliance from its inception in 2003 until 2015, with a special interest in music for piano triet by living composers. His own first triet “Are You Going?” (“a toccata boogie of unstoppable, unquenchable verve” Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International) was premiered at the 2010 Kiev Chamber Music Session Festival by the Kiev Piano Duo (with Antoniy Baryshevkiy), for whom he wrote “Gaelic Faram Jig” for 2 pianos and 2 percussionists for the 2012 festival. John has conducted four Bristol Savoy Operatic Society productions, arranging Pirates of Penzance, Gondoliers and Iolanthe for small band. In January 2010 he became the Associate Conductor of the Bristol Millennium Orchestra.
In 1994 he spent a gap year in Pakistan, which led to a number of chamber pieces heavily influenced by Indian classical music, including “Raag Gezellig”, a piano duet composed as the compulsory work for the Valberg International Piano 4 Hands Competition 2011, subsequently recorded by French duo Bohêmes (Aurélie Samani and Gabriela Ungureanu) and released by 1EqualMusic/Hyperion. Hearing that virtuosic Indian piano duet performed by a number of superb duos led to the idea of writing this book – and to the desire to make Indian raags accessible to many more pianists. The sheet music for “Raag Gezellig” is available in the book “7 Piano Duets & Triets”.
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