Guest post by Jack Kohl

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page. I might supplement my case by directing him or her to Ives’s own Essays Before A Sonata and to its recent bookend, Kyle Gann’s extraordinary new study: Charles Ives’s Concord: Essays After A Sonata. One is in consummate hands with both of these books, and with many commercial recordings. Hence I will endeavor here to offer only what guidance I can from my own earliest experiences of the piece, and from my years of preparation at the keyboard before taking the work to the platform.

American pianist Gilbert Kalish captures Ives’ many-layered moods and themes in this reading of the “Concord”.

But I would not write an analysis of the piece; I would only write praise. This work has served as a dorsal fin in my existence since I was in my mid-teens, serving midway between the pectoral influences of Ralph Waldo Emerson on one side (through his Journals and published essays), and Franz Liszt on the other (principally through his Sonata in B Minor). Emerson and Liszt have always seemed men ripe for a study in parallel lives: Emerson of Concord, a man who metamorphosed from minister to performance artist; Liszt of Weimar, retired performance artist bound for a near-priestly twilight.

The “Concord” has always appeared to me formed by a Liszt Sonata in B Minor that escaped from passage on a mystic Mayflower, hid then between the serrations of tribal arrowheads, next amidst the lines of Puritan sermons, at last reemerging through Ives as his Second Piano Sonata when the old Calvinist headstones in the churchyard turned like a piano’s pins from the torque of Transcendentalist tuning hammers. It is no coincidence, I believe, that the “Concord” Sonata of Ives starts on a B-natural, on the same pitch class as the Liszt Sonata’s conclusion. Everything that follows in the Ives work has always seemed to me as an atomic subdivision of that final note of the Liszt Sonata.

How did I first learn of the piece? The Easter Bunny thought I had outgrown candy and left me a hidden copy of Howard Boatwright’s edition of Essays Before A Sonata and Other Writings by Charles Ives on Easter Morning of 1985 or 1986. The Easter Bunny is wise. He knew me better than I knew myself. Ives wrote the essays “primarily as a preface or reason for” his Second Piano Sonata. Opposite the first page of each essay for the Sonata’s four movements (an essay for “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”), Ives gives the first page of the respective movement from the score itself. The moment that I first looked in silence upon the “Emerson” movement’s opening five systems is distinct in my memory.

Ives’s engraved note heads appeared to be independent of the staff lines underneath them. Somehow the score writing seemed to imply epigrammatic meaning without the context of staff lines. He appeared to record some kind of journal-like impressions without heed to his notebook’s ruled pages.

That first impression from thirty years ago was similar to one I had of late. While rehearsing recently on the afternoon before a hastily prepared musical theater concert with Broadway actors, I was handed a printout for the song “Vanilla Ice Cream” from the musical “She Loves Me.” Perhaps because the printer’s ink cartridge was running low, or perhaps because the original scan of the music was faulty, the copy showed note heads that were distinct, though of a jaundiced color. But the staff lines were nearly invisible. It was remarkable to me how much the absence of the staff lines made the note heads useless to me as a sight reader. There was a rush to find another copy of the music. But for the first page of Ives’s “Concord” one feels that there is a deep and artful implication from the seeming separation of the note heads from the sublimated staff lines. The stars at night are like such Ivesian note heads.

Is it by some kind of faith that we feel there must be spiritual staff lines between, around, the sidereal musical notation, inspiring our will to form constellations? And yet the actual lines are there if one looks twice with sober eyes at the first page of the “Emerson” movement. Ives’s wild notational utterance is a heterodoxy brought into control by a Puritan focus.

Transcendentalism only works in the shadow of the Meeting House; one cannot coast too far. But the harmonic verticality on that first page seems a sign that Ives will only enter as far as “the vestibule of the temple” on the grand staff.

His harmony almost seems a complement or foil to ubiquity: like soap bubbles that might conjoin yet not appear yoked (and not augment the size of the new sphere); like Siamese twins with one body and one identity; or as if an entire flock of gulls could alight on one flagpole, yet not one bird crowded to the equator of the topping sphere. In other words, what is the reverse of ubiquity for multiple objects? Rather than one thing everywhere at once (ubiquity); it is everything (or many things) at one place at one time.

Mit-like width of chord spans are called for in “Emerson” – as if wider and wider parts of the body might be required to realize the vertical sonorities – as if ultimately the width of contact would be so great one would need be prostrate on the keyboard; and then one would need get up and live for oneself instead of the music. It is music that makes one stand up from the bench in health. It is as an object or article the use of which is to compel one to repudiate it in favor of one’s own actions.

But the act of repudiation is not an act of rejection. This music makes a noble sacrifice of itself for the listener’s mind. It weans one like an aggressive mother bear weans her aging cub. The hands are so often splayed in very wide non-tonal contexts that the fingers assume the arrangement of one engaged in a handstand – as if one might look away from the score and the instrument and perceive the world upside down, as with the refreshed fascination as when one bends over to look through one’s legs.

The chords in “Emerson” compel one to look at systems above and below the one being played at the moment. Ives compels non-linear comparison of his own material in this way, and one is reminded of the unanticipated comparisons a reader can make when using any text, when, with fingers between the pages or just before a page turn or in the midst of a draft, intense sunlight reveals the text that is printed on the reverse side of an oncoming page or a preceding page.

All this points to Ives’s success in translating the miraculous effect of Emerson’s latent prose mechanics. Emerson credits the best books with triggering thought, and he does not mean thought in relation to a book’s subject or style – no, something in certain texts (something deep in their mechanics) triggers one’s completely independent thinking of a reading – completely independent of a book’s content, style, and even the latent mechanics that trigger the thought. Emerson’s own books have that latent mechanism – as if while making demands for themselves they also trigger some part of the mind that is as a cerebral appendix to the conscious act of reading the book of another.

The “Emerson” movement is programmatic insofar as it suggests the mental mechanical action of the man Matthew Arnold called the greatest prose writer of the nineteenth-century – a writer who, if one counts the spaces, the periods, between his dense and intentionally incongruous phrases – has asked his reader an equal number of times to think as much as, if not more than, the author.

Most people, when saying prose writing is musical, mean to suggest an ineffable quality of poetic ringing or rhythm to the language. But Ives in his “Emerson” movement captures a deeper musical suggestiveness from Emerson’s working habits as a writer of journal entries – mechanics that invoke an equal share of the horizontal and the vertical – and those mechanics somehow survive in latent evidence in the essays. To wit: Emerson’s filling notebooks from front to back and back to front, writing of pages up and down rather than from side to side; intentionally stacking incongruous subject matter atop one another. Emerson calls upon the implied strength hidden in a palimpsest. Ives mentions in his own essays Carlyle’s remark on Emerson’s lack of coherence paragraph to paragraph. But the lack of phrase coherence is intentional, and the tacit transitions are left to the reader – and the listener. Emerson’s lack of coherence is not incoherence, but a conscious effort to remove articulations of transition. The reader, the witness, is forced to live in that gap and to realize transitional surface himself.

If in lieder, word painting endeavors to express concrete meanings of a word by the direction – up or down – of musical notes, then Ives for Emerson transition paints. He endeavors to catch the metaphoric leaps that are left to the reader by Emerson when the reader is confronted by non-sequential sentences on a related topic. Ives recalls the moment of an erudite squirrel leaping, in mystic but somehow unbending portamento, from tree to tree in Mr. Emerson’s orchard. Ives renders the leaps of a “La Campenella” into a dance betwixt one’s own neurons.

I spend a lot of time trying to disabuse students of the misuse of the word song for non-song pieces. But in the “Emerson” movement of the “Concord”, perhaps the usage is correct in an unsuspected way. For Ives undertakes a prosody for the latent mechanics of Emerson’s prose. Emerson’s latent mechanics – the mystic text buried in the infinite density of his periods and semicolons – are not detected by “reading between the lines.” That phrase merely suggests the ulterior purpose of the visible text. Emerson’s and Ives’s latent mechanics ask that the reader, the player, the listener, synthesize mediating purposes that are aggressively omitted.

Granted, the foundations of profound abstract borrowings from spoken and sung language had long been laid in piano literature. The frenetic machinegun alternation of the hands in the first page of Ives’s “Emerson” may even announce a philosophical leap of purpose over the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century piano performance practice of left-hand-before-right-hand execution.

But Ives’s intentions are much more ambitious than those of the pianist-composers who borrowed from and steeped themselves in the bel canto tradition. Ives does not seem to imagine the rhythms of Emerson the lecturer, of Emerson the performer. Again, Ives’s aim appears to be the translation of Emerson’s latent mechanics into music.

Emerson himself, in his remarkable entry (from Journal Y, 1845-1846) under the heading of Croisements, writes: “The seashore, and the taste of two metals in contact, and our enlarged powers in the presence or rather at the approach & at the departure of a friend, and the mixture of lie in truth, and the experience of poetic creativeness which is not found in staying at home, nor yet in travelling, but in transitions from one to the other, which must therefore be adroitly managed to present as much transitional surface as possible. ‘A ride near the sea, a sail near the shore;’ said the ancient.”

Ives’s “Emerson” codifies and achieves this aim. By means of what might be styled a Total Chromaticism, Ives paints as if from a palette, fires as if from a quiver, of all leading tones. The listener must learn to exult in Ives’s painting in “as much transitional surface as possible.” I remember as a child that I was disappointed that one could not land on Jupiter, could not set foot on a gas giant – for from afar it looks like a glorious and inviting solid. But it cannot be mapped. Ives’s score, in imitation of the latent prose mechanics of Emerson, is a snapshot of an evolving surface of Jovial ether.

The “Emerson” movement, though the first movement in the Sonata, is in fact a development section in disguise yet in plain sight. Its repositioning is a mild and superficial disguise, yet as effective as Clark Kent’s horn-rimmed glasses. It is a development in which the founding elements are constantly resetting, as if it is a record of all beginnings, of all first bars. It is like a language of all prepositions – nay, pre­-positions.

Mass. is a common abbreviation for Massachusetts. But I suspect Mr. Ives, in his Sonata’s title, is rendering a civil religious pun. For he has given us not just a piece about Concord (kŏng’kərd), Mass., but a work to be regarded as the Mass of concord (kŏn’kôrd) – best heard from the vestibule of the temple.


mj_kohlJack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and the forthcoming You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press

 

This excellent initiative was started by Australian piano teacher and composer Elissa Milne. The purpose was to promote and implement the concept of students learning a huge quantity of piano pieces in one year to allow students to learn, experience and perform far more pieces than our exam-focussed culture tends to allow. Known learning outcomes from the exercise include improved sight-reading skills, greater independence in learning, and enhanced musicianship and music appreciation.

Another similar initiative is the Go-Play Project, in which US pianist and teacher Catherine Shefski set herself the task of learning (or relearning) a piece of piano music each week over the course of a year (she recorded the pieces and uploaded them to SoundCloud). Like many piano teachers, Catherine felt she was not spending enough time at the piano for herself amidst all the teaching and admin that goes with running a piano teaching studio. I followed Cathy’s project with interest and told myself that one day I would do something similar.

A new year, and a number of pianist friends and colleagues have embarked on their own 40-Piece Challenge. Despite, or because of, the fact that I have set myself a vast learning challenge in Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D959 in A), I decided it was time to try my own 40-Piece Challenge. My motives for doing so are slightly different from the original purpose of the project:

What kind of repertoire?

The Schubert sonata is a big work in four movements, which takes c.40 minutes to play, and the learning process is by necessity long and detailed. It would be foolish to add other very advanced works to my musical diet, so the premise is to learn shorter and “easier” works for the challenge. And the pieces selected do not necessarily have to be “new”: as part of the exercise, I am revisiting some pieces I learnt a few years ago. There is much to be gained from reviving previous repertoire, as new insights and ideas about the music are revealed.

To guard against boredom and retain variety in my practising

I would be crazy to devote all my practise time to the Schubert alone. Adding a variety of shorter works is a supplement to my main learning and a way of ensuring I retain interest and excitement in the piano.

To extend my repertoire

When one is working for exams or diplomas, there is a terrible tendency to focus only on the set pieces. This is not healthy, as too much focus on a narrow repertoire can lead to familiar pieces growing stale. One often finds that even the most disparate repertoire will inform other works. I also wanted to have a “bank” of pieces I could call on for the occasional concerts I give.

Each piece will be recorded and uploaded to my Soundcloud

Recording is an excellent way of evaluating one’s playing and an opportunity to listen in a different way, allowing us to make judgements about which areas need revision or improvement. By insisting on recording each piece, I am forcing myself to prepare each work carefully. This in itself is a useful exercise: just because the repertoire is “easier”, it should still be prepared to a high (concert-ready) level.

Update 1 – September 2015

With 27 pieces recorded and uploaded to Soundcloud, I am nearly three-quarters of the way through the project. There was a slight hiatus during the summer break when I was devoting much of my practise time to the Schubert Sonata in order to meet a personal deadline to have the entire sonata in the fingers by the end of June. Also, the piano was in need of a tune and I didn’t want to make any further recordings until it had been tuned.

Learning outcomes so far:

  • The project has encouraged me to learn “fast and smart”
  • I have become slightly less hyper-critical than usual about my playing, resulting in, I think, fresher and more imaginative recordings.
  • It has given me a focus in that each week I consider which works should be prepared for the challenge and add them to my practising diet.
  • It has made my work on the Schubert more enjoyable because there is variety in my practising regime

Update 2 – December 2015

I completed the project in early December – ahead of my deadline – and 40 pieces are now uploaded to my SoundCloud. I enjoyed the project very much, in particular the discipline of learning shorter pieces quickly and carefully. I am now considering a new 40 Piece Challenge for 2016 during which I will learn and record 40 new pieces of music (rather than a mixture of new and revived works).

The pieces:

For those considering a similar challenge, I offer some repertoire suggestions (intermediate to advanced level):

J S Bach – Kleine Preludes, Two- and Three-Part Inventions

Chopin – Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Nocturnes

Beethoven – Bagatelles

Schubert – Moments Musicaux, Ländler, Waltzes

Heller – Etudes

Rachmaninoff – Preludes, Moments Musicaux, 6 Morceaux Op 11, Etudes-Tableaux

Scriabin – Preludes, Etudes and other shorter piano works

Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives

Bartok – Mikrokosmos (later volumes)

Ligeti – Musica Ricercata

Debussy – Preludes, Children’s Corner

Scarlatti – Sonatas

Single movements from sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.

Returning to old repertoire can be extremely satisfying, and one often discovers new things about the music when returning to it after a break. I also recall all the reasons what I like about the repertoire and why I selected it in the first place.

My teacher has cautioned me about reviving repertoire I learnt as a teenager. This is good advice, for despite a gap of over 30 years, all the impetuous errors of youth seem ingrained in the piece and the fingers, and undoing these problems can be nigh-on impossible. Against my teacher’s advice, however, I revived Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu for my ATCL Diploma in 2011, because I needed a “fast piece” in the programme. I had not touched the piece seriously for over 30 years, yet I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it I could remember (it must be said that this is not a particularly difficult piece to memorise, being constructed from repeating patterns and motifs). But working from the old Editions Peters score I had as a teenager meant that all the errors were still there, as well as my then teacher’s annotations. In order to learn the piece carefully, I ditched the dog-eared score and purchased a new Henle urtext edition. In effect, I started again from scratch with the piece: I learnt new fingering schemes, thought carefully about the structure and atmosphere of the piece, and was delighted to have it described as “an assured and stylistically accurate performance” by the diploma examiner. Having taken the trouble to re-learn the work carefully, it is now very securely lodged in fingers and memory.

People often ask me whether it is “hard” to revive old repertoire. In general, I have to say I have found it relatively easy to return to previously-learnt repertoire, though this isn’t always the case (the ‘Toccata’ from Bach’s 6th Partita will take some careful work if I want to revive it). However, one can take steps to ensure that once learnt a piece can be revived and made ready for performance relatively quickly.

Lately, I have been enjoying revisiting some of Szymanowski’s Opus 50 Mazurkas, the first two of which I played for my ATCL recital. The pieces felt different without the pressure of an exam hanging over me, and I felt I was playing them in a freer way as a result. I am also working on Rachmaninov’s G minor Etude-Tableau (Opus 33, No. 8), for my debut in the South London Concert Series in May (the piece will be paired with Szymanowski’s Mazurka no. 1). It is a mark of how carefully I practised the piece in the first place that within an hour of practising earlier today, I felt it coming back together nicely. Of course there are elements that will need some careful, detailed work (the cadenza, for example), but overall, it is still in pretty good shape. Getting it “concert ready” should not take too long.

Professional pianists will have many pieces “in the fingers” which can be downloaded and made ready for performance in a matter of days. This may include 20 concertos or more, most of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas, many of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, plus other pieces which are ‘standard’ repertoire: Mozart and Schubert sonatas, works by Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt, much of Debussy and Ravel etc., and popular ‘standards’ from the 20th Century repertoire by composers such as Messiaen, Bartok, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Berio, Berg, and Schoenberg. Careful learning and preparation mean that repertoire can be learnt, revived and kept going simultaneously. It is this kind of deep, thoughtful practise that is essential for ensuring repertoire remains in the fingers (and brain) even if one is not practising it every day.

Some thoughts on reviving repertoire successfully:

  • Recall what you liked about the pieces in the first place. What initially attracted you to the pieces? Rekindle your affection for the pieces when you revisit them
  • Don’t play through pieces at full tilt. Take time to play slowly and carefully.
  • Trust your practise skills. Be alert to issues as they arise and don’t allow frustration to creep in.
  • Look for new interpretative and expressive possibilities within the music. Try new interpretative angles and meaningful gestures.
  • Don’t hurry to bring the piece up to full tempo too quickly. Take time to practise slowly and carefully.
  • Schedule performance opportunities: there’s nothing better to motivate practise than a concert date or two in the diary.

My latest article for Pianist magazine’s e-newsletter is on the joys of discovering new repertoire.

From live concerts to recommendations from friends, and “lateral repertoire selection”, there are many ways to discover new music. Read the full article here

‘Pianist’ is the international piano magazine for people who love to play the piano, with a particular accent on amateur pianists and adult returners. Sign up for the free e-newsletter here

 

In our celebrity-obsessed, ‘image is everything’ times, it seems that the fledgling concert pianist’s path to the modern concert arena – the ‘Three C’s’ of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto – has turned professional piano playing into a kind of Olympian activity whose creed is “faster, higher, louder”, and has reduced the vast and wonderful repertoire to a relatively small stable of over-played warhorses, most notably, perhaps, the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Third Concerto. Today’s young piano superstars are using technique as the be all and end all, rather than as a means to serve the music. Thus, while we might be impressed by flashy technical prowess and grand gestures, we are often being offered only superficial display.

Just as the four-minute mile has been shaved down by 17 seconds over the 50 years since Bannister’s record-breaking run, certain pieces in the standard piano repertoire seem to be getting faster – and/or louder. I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter followers and Facebook friends to see what other people thought about this. As one person said, “….people are generally and more easily drawn to the more obvious things in life (just take a look at anything in the media today). Faster and louder is definitely more obvious than subtle and artistic. It also requires less work….”

Thus, certain pieces are wheeled out over and over again by young, ‘generic’ pianists, not because they are necessarily the hardest in the repertoire, but because they are the most impressive, both visually and aurally. And here I must admit that I was absolutely gob-smacked by the speed at which Marc-Andre Hamelin’s hands moved around the keyboard at his late-night Liszt Prom, even though I didn’t like the actual piece (Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H) that much. But in his Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude, Hamelin proved that he is not just a brilliant technician: his account was ethereal, luminescent, profound and emotional, and it spoke of a long association with the music, something which younger players may not appreciate with their desire to rush from showpiece to showpiece.

My informal poll revealed a general consensus about certain works, acknowledged amongst pianists to be some of the most challenging in the repertoire, in terms of technical difficulty and/or length. These include, in no particular order (links open in Spotify):

Beethoven – Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’. The daring opening leap should, of course, be played with one hand!

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

Stravinsky – Trois Mouvements de Petrushka

Chopin – Etudes (especially Op 10 Nos 1 & 2, Op 25 Nos 6 & 11)

Liszt – Transcendental Etudes (especially Feux Follets, Wilde Jagd)

Liszt – B minor Sonata

Brahms – Paganini Variations

Rachmaninov – 3rd Concerto

Prokofiev – 2nd Concerto

Bartok – 2nd Concerto

Alkan – Concert for Solo Piano

Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus

Godowsky – transcriptions of Chopin Etudes

Sorabji – Opus clavicembalisticum (a piece which lasts around 4 hours)

Of course, while being hugely technically and physically demanding, many of these works, when played well, sound effortless (which, of course, is what we as pianists are all striving for!). And yet even the simplest piece, such as Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica, which I heard played as an encore at an eccentric little arts venue in Highgate some years ago, can sound sophisticated and refined – ‘Olympian’ even – in the right hands!

As a postscript, my own personal ‘Olympian’ works include:

Chopin – Etude Opus 10, No. 3. As my teacher said, the difficulty lies less in the technical demands, and more in the fact that this Etude is so well known, so one wants to do it justice.

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge, no. IV of the ‘Vingt Regards’. For someone who had not really attempted any true atonal music before, the difficulty in this piece lay, initially, in “tuning” my ear into the discordant harmonies. Also, at first sight it looks utterly horrendous on the page!

Debussy – Prelude & Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’. The Prelude requires playful, fleet and pristine fingers, while the big, hand-filling chords of the Sarabande presented their own problem for the tenosynovitis in my right hand. Exercises and solid technique have enabled me to play this piece comfortably and without pain.

More on ‘Pianistic Everests’ from Tom Service