Monday, October 16, 2017

Alkan - 25 Preludes, Opus 31

As the word implies, the musical prelude began as a extemporized piece that acted as an introduction to another work, most of them for keyboard or lute. This was done to check the tuning of the instrument as well as to limber up the fingers of the player. They set the key and tempo of the piece to come as well. They became a part of set music practice in the 16th century into the middle of the 18th century.

Johann Sebastian Bach's preludes for organ and the set of 48 preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier became the model for other composers, and as the fugue grew out of fashion, the prelude came into its own. They retained the name, but no longer were an introduction to a fugue or other piece, but a work by themselves.

Writing a set of preludes in all the major and minor keys became a tradition that many composers followed. While Chopin's opus 28 set of preludes published in 1839 were not the first set of preludes without fugues, the quality and variety contained within the set rapidly made them the standard.

The opus 31 set by Charles Alkan was published in 1847 and contain an additional 25th prelude that serves as an ending. Alkan's preludes have similarities as well as differences with Chopin's set. Both sets are a collection of short pieces that are not complex in form. Some of Chopin's preludes are more harmonically adventurous, while Alkan opts for descriptive titles for some of his, something which Chopin never did.

Alkan's preludes are separated into three books:

Book I
1. Lentement (Slowly), C major - The first prelude is not complex and is but one page long. The melody moves between octaves played in the right hand. Performer indications are few, and the preformer needs to bring out the inner melody and follow what indications there are and bring feeling to what can be a mundane piece.

2. Assez lentement (quite slowly), F minor - The first section is in 6/8 time and plays out in the key of F minor. The music is marked cantabile with short statements for the right hand while the left hand plays a one chord accompaniment. The next section shifts the music to cut time, the key to F major, while the tempo increases. The music moves back and forth between these two sections until it ends in F major.

3. Dans le genre ancien (In the ancient genre), D-flat major - The ancient genre being the late Baroque era of Bach, the printed music shows how these preludes can be played on the organ or pedal piano as well as the regular piano. Alkan was a virtuoso of the pedal piano, which had a keyboard at the bottom of the piano like an organ pedal board.

4. Prière du soir (Evening prayer) , F-sharp minor - Alkan was Jewish, and this prelude brings some of the feeling of his Jewishness to the set. A prelude simple in form, marked to be played con devozione (with devotion).

5. Psaume 150me (Psalm 150), D major - Written in 3 staves, one of them being a part for pedal board. Inspired by Psalm 150:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!
6. Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue (Ancient melody of the synagogue), G minor - Another piece reflecting Alkan's Jewishness, the voice of the cantor of the synagogue. The tempo indication is Andante flebile (moderately and mournfully).

7. Librement mais sans secousses (Freely but without bumps), E-flat major - Light in mood and in execution 'without bumps'.

8. Le chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (The song of the insane woman by the sea), A-flat minor - While there are few recordings of the complete preludes, this one turns up as an addition to recordings of other works. It is a strange work, an early example of French music impressionism. It begins with the depiction of waves with large chords at the lower end of the keyboard. The song enters at the other extreme high up on the keyboard. The middle section has the tempo and volume increase as the waves get more pronounced and the song more frantic until a climax is reached. The music retreats back to the nearly catatonic as the song becomes quiet and more fragmented until the end is reached.

9. Placiditas (Gently), E major - Marked Tranquillo in tempo molto independente (tranquil with a much independent tempo) this is the emotional opposite to the previous prelude and brings the first book to a close.

Book II
10. Dans le style fugué (In the fugue style), A minor - A two-page fugue played molto presto. 

11. Un petit rien (A little nothing), F major - As the name implies, a simple prelude to be played rather fast but gently.

12. Le temps qui n'est plus (Times that are no more), B-flat minor - A melancholy prelude, lamenting the loss of treasured times of the past.

13. J'étais endormie, mais mon cœur veillait (I was asleep, but my heart was awake), G-flat major - Written throughout in cut time (equivilent to 2/2 time) each half note beat is subdivided into 5 eighth note quintuplets, essentially making this a prelude in 10/8 time, a novelty for the era. The title refers to a passage from the Old Testament book Song Of Solomon. Alkan was a scholar of the Old Testament.

14. Rapidement (Quickly), B minor - To be played rapidly. It has a contrasting middle section.

15. Dans le genre gothique (In the gothic genre), G major - I do not know what Alkan meant by 'gothic', but this gentle prelude represents the key of G major well.

16 Assez lentement (Very slowly), C minor - A prelude that begins sadly, with each voice entering in counterpoint. The middle section has a few moments when light enters into the music, but it mostly stays in a melancholy mood until a Picardy third ends the piece in C major.

17. Rêve d'amour (Dream of love), A-flat major - The prelude begins in A-flat major, with a middle section that shifts to A major. Another section shifts the key to E minor, and a impassioned chromatic section leads back to the ending section marked palpitant in A-flat major.

Book III

18. Sans trop de mouvement (Without too much movement), C-sharp minor - The indication at the beginning of the prelude refers to only the 4-bar introduction. The actual prelude is a romance that shifts between C-sharp minor and C-sharp major. It ends in C-sharp major.

19. Prière du matin (Morning prayer), A major - Another spiritual prelude that looks simple on the page, but needs the proper feeling and attention to the melody.

20. Modérement vite et bien caracterise (Moderately fast and with spirit), D minor - Octaves and thick, heavily accented chords bring out the aggressive nature of this prelude.

21. Doucement (Gently), B-flat major - The alternating B-flat notes are all that are heard in the left hand and lend a simple, bell-like accompaniment to the shifting chords in the right.

22. Anniversaire (Anniversary), E-flat minor - The music plods along in the home key with deep bass notes giving the accompaniment. The music lightens in the final section as the key shifts to E-flat major.

23. Assez vite (Quite fast), B major - A prelude of grace, to be played fast.

24. Étude de velocite (Velocity study), E minor - The only prelude with the overt attention to technique, rapid finger technique to be precise. This prelude resembles the style of Chopin in his Etudes.

25. Prière (Prayer) , C major - The longest in performance length, this prelude moves at a very slow tempo in mostly block chords. It is a hymn of harmonic richness, reverence, and ends the set as it had began, in the key of C major.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chopin - Ballade No. 1 In G Minor, Opus 23

The history of the term ballad begins with a type of French medieval narrative song which was generally danced to. Ballet derives from the same base word in French, so both words have the action of dance in common. But while the etymology of the word may be French, the ballad was a narrative song or poem that has been historically found across Europe and England and were associated with minstrels for centuries.

This cursory description of what an historical ballad is has a direct bearing on the term as it is used in the instrumental form of the same name. The historical ballad tells a story in verse with or without music, while the Romantic era ballad is an instrumental work. More specifically, in the case of Chopin's use of the term, it is a musical composition for solo piano that tells a story in purely musical terms. 

When the first ballade was published in 1836 it was considered somewhat of a novelty at the time, for no composer had used the term for a work for solo piano before Chopin. Chopin wrote four ballades (the spelling he used derives from French) during his lifetime, from 1831 to 1842. During his second trip to Vienna in 1831, he began to write the first ballade. He completed it in 1835 after he had moved to Paris. Each of the 4 Ballades are singular works. There are a few purely technical similarities between them, but musically and emotionally they are separate pieces. They contain some of the most  difficult technical and interpretive challenges of any pieces for solo piano in the repertoire.

Lento -  The ballade begins with seven bars of slow arpeggios in common time that serves as a recitative/introduction to the work. 

Moderato - The short introduction blends into the first of two primary themes, a gently pensive theme in 6/4 time and the home key of G minor. After this theme is repeated and slightly expanded, a motive is heard and passage work leads to the second major theme with the indication,

Meno mosso -  This theme is in E-flat major. This theme gets a proper hearing and elaboration, and leads up to the next section.

What has gone on before may be considered as the exposition of a piece in Chopin's personal use of sonata form, as the first theme reappears. It gradually leads to the reappearance of the second theme in a more powerful rendering in a different key. Another motive is heard, and leads to what can be considered as a recapitulation, although the themes appear in reverse order than they did in the exposition.  A stunning coda begins, complete with powerful runs in both hands alternating with solemnly quiet chords until a thunder of octaves brings the piece to a close.

In the end, no amount of analysis slight or detailed will convey the strength of Chopin's artistry in this ballade. Or is there anything of much value to trying to tie the ballade with any kind of literary work. Chopin made no reference to any outside inspiration. It is as Chopin intended; a story told in purely musical terms to be understood by emotions and feelings brought on by the music. In that aspect, Chopin is one of the most Romantic of all Romantic era composers.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Schubert - Four Impromptus D. 935 (Op. posth. 142)

The word impromptu by definition implies something that is spontaneous, improvised. That definition does not really imply in music, for the impromptus as written by Schubert and other composers are hardly improvisations. They are well-crafted short pieces for the piano that have a definite structure.

Schubert wrote eight impromptus, but he was not the first to use the term. The first known use of the word for published musical works was by the Czech composer and pianist Jan Václav Voříšek in his opus 7 set of six piano pieces in 1822.  Voříšek and Schubert knew each other in Vienna, and Schubert may have been inspired by Voříšek's opus 7 set.

All eight of Schubert's impromptus were written in 1827, a year before the composer died. Two of them were published shortly after they were written, and Schubert's publisher suggested calling them impromptus. The other six were published sporadically after his death. The complete set of eight was published in 1857, thirty years after they were written, and are now considered to be in two sets of four each; D.899 and D.935. The four pieces of D.935 are discussed below:

1) F Minor - This impromptu can be broken down into 3 major sections. The first section is a group of themes that begins with one in F minor:
The second section is in A-flat major and is of a decidedly more lyrical nature. The third and longer section enters in A-flat minor with alternating statements in the treble and bass with a continuing accompaniment. This section modulates to the major before sections 1 and 2 are repeated. The third section is also repeated, this time in the home key. The first section makes one more brief appearance to end the piece.

2) A-flat Major -  Written in the same form as a minuet with the opening in A-flat major:
The trio section begins in D-flat major in triplets. The key changes to D-flat minor before the opening material returns.

3) B-flat Major, Theme and Variations -  A theme with 5 variations:
Variation I has the theme repeated in a dotted rhythm at the top of the right hand with an accompaniment also played in the right hand and left hand.
Variation II has the theme ornamented.
Variation III is in B-flat minor. Somber chords in the left hand accompany the moody minor variation of the theme.
Variation IV is in G-flat major with the theme carried in the left hand at the start. The theme alternates between hands.
Variation V has the theme return to the home key of B-flat major as the theme is delicately outlined with runs in the right hand. A short coda ends the piece.

4) F minor, Tempo Scherzando - Written in F minor and in 3/8 time. As Schubert was wont to do in his later works the form (which is ternary) is expanded with many different sections and themes within the parts as well as going far afield from the home key within the piece. The first part has 4 different sections and begins with the scherzo theme:
The second part has two sections and functions as a trio. The first part is repeated after the trio. A long coda section picks up the tempo towards the end and the piece ends with a thundering F minor scale the length of the keyboard.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Rhapsody For Organ No. 3 From 'Three Rhapsodies On Folk Songs From Brittany', Opus 7

Camille Saint-Saëns was an example of the consummate musician as he was a performer, conductor, composer and musicologist. Music was not his only interest, as he also studied many areas of science such as archeology, botany and especially astronomy. He was keen on mathematics and literature as well.

His musical output included works for solo piano, piano and orchestra, symphonies, opera, and chamber music. He also composed music for the solo organ, but much of it is relatively unknown. It was as a professional organist that Saint-Saëns started his musical career when he was 18 years old in 1853 as church organist in Paris. He spent around 20 years in the service of the church, and then made his way as a freelance composer, performer on the piano and organ, and conductor.

Saint-Saëns held only one teaching position in his entire career, at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris, a school that was founded to develop organists and musicians for the churches of France. He was the head of piano studies and remained at the school for 5 years. One of the students he taught there was Gabriel Fauré, and the two became life-long friends. Saint-Saëns and some of his other friends took Fauré along with them on a trip to Brittany in the north of France in 1866. While traveling to an ancient chapel in the area,  Saint-Saëns heard some folksongs of the region and used them as material in his Opus 7 work 3 Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Pélérinage au pardon de Sainte Anne-la-Palud.

The third rhapsody of the set is in three sections. The first section begins with a sad tune in A minor. The second section is a short musette tune first played on the reed stops of the organ. The next section begins with a more robust tune first heard in the pedals of the organ. This grows in intensity as it is repeated with more stops of the organ. The beginning tune then reappears, followed by a repeat of the musette tune.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Beethoven - Rondo a Capriccio, Opus 129 'Rage Over A Lost Penny'

Late in 1827 there was an auction held in the city of Vienna, Austria. Beethoven had died in the spring of that year, and his belongings were being sold. The partner of Anton Diabelli, a music publisher in Vienna, attended the auction and purchased an unfinished manuscript of a piece for piano. Diabelli said that the manuscript had an inscription on it that read in German: Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice that translates to English as Rage Over a Lost Penny, Vented in a Caprice.

The trouble is that the writing is not Beethoven's. Scholars believe it is the handwriting of Anton Schindler, Beethoven's friend and part-time secretary in his last years. Schindler was footloose and fancy free with his memories of Beethoven, and was not above forging documents and changing things to make himself look more important in Beethoven's life. He was the first to write a biography of Beethoven, and it has proven to be somewhat unreliable.

The opus number 129 was issued posthumously to the piece as it was published by Diabelli in 1828, but 1795 is the year written on the manuscript, so it is a piece from early in Beethoven's career when he was still taking Vienna by storm as a virtuoso performer on the piano. Beethoven himself put a title on the piece in Italian: Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio which translates to Rondo in the Hungarian style, almost a caprice. Hungarian music was synonymous with Gypsy music at the time, and remained so until musicologists and musicians like Béla Bartók studied the folk music of the area.

But Diabelli knew a good story would help sell the music, and the work became one of Beethoven's most well-known. And the work is still known for the title written on the manuscript in a different hand as it suits the music very well.

This rondo is not a standard type of rondo where a set theme alternates between other episodes, as the rondo theme itself is varied with each repetition. And the tempo has very little respite from the Allegro vivace tempo designation at the beginning of the piece. Each episode and return of the rondo theme is at a frantic pace.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Alkan - Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux Dans le Genre Pathétique, Opus 15

Charles Alkan's set of piano pieces titled Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux Dans le Genre Pathétique, Opus 15  (Three Pieces In The Pathetic Style) was published in 1837. Alkan's music was not generally reviewed in any of the music periodicals of the time outside of his native France, and it is to those French publications that musicologists and researchers must look for any contemporary views of his music. Even those are rather sparse, owing in some part to his reclusive nature in later years. These three pieces are an exception, as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt made their opinions known.

Schumann's review appeared in 1838 in  Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the periodical that he edited and wrote for. Schumann did not like the work at all. Some of the things he wrote concerning it:
One finds oneself... gripped by the lack of art and real we find little more than frailty and vulgarity devoid of imagination. The studies have titles... and are distinguished throughout theior fifty pages by a deluge of notes and a lack of even the slightest indication of performance markings.... We may choose to protect talent when it loses its way, but there has to be some kind of demonstration of musicianship... if even that becomes questionable then we are forced to turn our backs, unmoved.
Very strong words, with even more negativity in the rest of the review.  Schumann was correct about one thing though; there is not a hint of any performance markings in the first edition. No slurs, tempo or dynamic symbols at all.  Alkan dedicated the work to Franz Liszt, who he became acquainted with when they lived in Paris. Whether that had anything to do with the omission of any performing markings isn't known.

The review by Liszt of the work is markedly different than Schumann's. Liszt did take Alkan to task in some of the aspects, but for the most part was happy with the work. That they were dedicated to him probably didn't hurt either:
The caprices of M. Alkan, after reading and re-reading them many times, show themselves to be distinguished compositions...and are likely to... invoke great interest with musicians.
1. Amie-moi (Love me) -  The French word pathétique in the title of this work is usually translated as pathetic, which has a multitude of meanings. When used in musical works, it has the meaning of music which touches the feelings or excites emotions and passions, especially that which awakens tender emotions, such as pity, sorrow, love, etc.  The titles that Alkan gave to each movement give a clue as to the underlying emotions of the music. The first piece begins in the key of seven flates, A-flat minor. It is similar in feeling to the music of Alkan's friend Chopin. The music slowly grows intense as more and more notes pile into measures until the climax is reached. After the climax, the music returns to the opening themes until there is a shift to A-flat major. The piece ends gently with an arpeggio up the keyboard.

2. Le vent (The wind) -  
Written in B minor, this piece opens with a sad melody in the left hand as the righthand plays chromatic runs of notes in simulation of the wind. The hands change roles, and then back again before a central section in D major appears. When the central section is over, chromatic scales for both hands lead up to a varied repeat of the opening material. This was one of Alkan's most well-known pieces for a time, indeed, it was the only piece of Alkan's that was performed with any kind of regularity. The piece continues with an extended trill and chromatic runs in both hands until it ends with a B major chord.

3. Morte (Death) -  Written in E-flat minor, the music opens deep in the bass end of the piano until the ancient Dies Irae hymn is heard. The hymn continues in thick chords and is transformed into a kind of introduction to a slow, sad theme first heard in single notes that become full chords. It grows in intensity until it reaches a short climax, where upon a solemn but persistent B-flat punctuates the theme. The music grows in intensity (and difficulty) and a theme in the major creeps in for a bit. but things go back to impassioned as the ending is relentlessly pursued until a long pause is reached. The Dies Irae returns. The opening of theme of the first piece in the set also returns for a short repeat. A trill in the left hand deep in the bass turns into chromatic runs as in the second piece in the set. The right hand traverses the keyboard slowly as the left handed trill resumes. Two resounding, loud sixteenth note chords end this longest piece of the set, in E-flat minor.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Albéniz - Iberia

The music of Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz evolved from early pieces composed in a European Romantic salon style, to music quintessentially Spanish. Albéniz used the characteristics of native music that was a melting pot of stylistic influences that began with the Islamic Moors in the 8th century. Added to the mix was music of the Romani people (Gypsies) that led to Flamenco, as well as other influences. This in turn lead to different styles of music according to the different areas of Spain.

It is interesting to note that although Albéniz was Spanish by birth and culture, he chose to live many years of his adult life outside of the country due to the backwardness and conservatism of Spain at the time. When he lived in Paris, Albéniz came under the influence of French music. His own compositions become more complex structurally, rhythmically and harmonically. The tonal palettes of Debussy inspired him and he managed to use all of these influences in combination with extreme technical demands on the pianist. For most of his life Albéniz was a virtuoso performer on the piano, and the pieces of Iberia are some of  the most difficult works in the repertoire. It is not only the technical difficulties by themselves. Rhythmic complexities contribute to the gymnastics of the player as well as a huge range of dynamics. The culmination of his life as a composer came in 1905-1909 when he composed the 12 pieces of Iberia, his suite for solo piano. It is a rare pianist that can do justice to all twelve of the pieces.  Albéniz died in May of 1909 from kidney disease.

Iberia is written in a series of four books with three pieces per book:

Book One:
1) Evocación -  Albéniz chose to live outside of Spain, but that didn't mean he wasn't nostalgic for his homeland. This first piece begins with his reminisces of Spain and its music. The title of it tells the tale, for the word evocation means the act of bringing or recalling a feeling, memory, or image to the conscious mind. It is in the rare key of A-flat minor (seven flats) and has a short section in A-flat major. There are sections that sound similar in spirit to Debussy, probably by intention, as there is a Debussian dreamlike quality to the music. The dynamic range of this piece runs from fortississimo (fff) to a barely audible pianississississimo (ppppp)

2) El Puerto - This piece depicts a bustling port city and is in the style of a zapateado, a flamenco dance of Spain that is in 6/8 time. Albéniz also throws in some examples of guitar strumming for good effect. The piecce ands very quietly.

3) Fête-dieu à Seville - Also known as El Corpus Christi en Sevilla, this is a short tone poem that evokes the procession of a statue of the Virgin Mary (as well as other statuary) down the streets of Seville in celebration of the Body of Christ, an event that has been occurring in the town since the 15th century. After some rapid strumming notes begin the piece, a march ensues. The music becomes more impassioned (and on the written page utilizes three staves instead of the usual two) until a middle section of more tranquil music begins. This middle section  is in the feeling of a Spanish religious song, a saeta. The march returns, builds to a climax and transforms into a dance. The end of the piece turns tranquil and introspective and ends quietly.

Book Two:

4) Rondeña - Ostensibly named after a dance from the city of Ronda in Andalusia. The distinction of this piece is the horizontal hemiola that is heard throughout most of the piece by the alternating time signatures of 6/8 and 3/4.

5) Almería - Another piece that takes its title from the name of a city in Andalusia. This time vertical hemiola is used by Albéniz as the left hand is generally in 6/8 time while the left drifts in and out of 3/4 time. Again Albéniz utilizes three staves of music in some sections, which while making the music look more complicated actually helps the performer realize the composer's intentions with more clarity, that is, after the performer gets accustomed to reading three staves instead of two! There are some interesting dissonances before the music comes to a quiet close.

6) Triana - Named after the section of Seville where gypsies live, the music lives up to its namesake by imitating the slapping of hands and stamping of feet of flamenco.

Book Three:
7) El Albaicín - This piece is also named after a gypsy section of town, this time the town is Granada. It begins quietly with an imitation of flamenco guitar that leads to the main theme of the piece. This theme alternates with more docile melodies. The main theme grows more animated and dissonant each time it returns. The piece ends with a final repetition of the main theme.

8) El Polo - Polo is a type of flamenco song with one particular song being the most well known.  Albéniz does not quote the well known song. He very seldom quoted other music. He understood the styles of different types of music in Spain and incorporated the style into his original material. The rhythm heard at the beginning runs throughout the piece.

9) Lavapiés - Named for an area in the city of Madrid. At one time Lavapiés was a seamy part of town that was noisy and full of shady activity. The music is loud and dissonant in reflection of the area.

Book Four:
10) Málaga - The title refers to the province of  Málaga, whose capital is also Málaga. It is located in the southern portion of Spain. The music has a great deal of rhythmic freedom. There is a basic theme that appears between differing episodes, but the changing rhythmic pulses and dissonances (that are more like fattened harmony than jarring) keeps things interesting.

11) Jerez - A city in Spain whose history goes back to Roman times. The town name was taken from the Arabic name of the town during Moorish rule. The town is known for the production the fortified wine sherry, which got its name from the town. The music switches time signatures frequently, and uses the rare time signature of 1/4,  with 2/4 and 3/4, giving it an authentic feeling of flamenco metric freedom.

12) Eritaña - The final piece depicts an evening in a tavern (that is also the name of the piece) on the outskirts of Seville. The inn was renown for the flamenco entertainment that took place there. Once again Albéniz mirrors the steps of the dance with the strumming of guitars in this finale of the most Spanish of piano works.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sibelius - 6 Impromptus For Piano, Opus 5

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is most well known for his music for orchestra. The seven symphonies he composed from 1900-1924 remain in the repertoire of many modern orchestras and have had a profound effect on composers.  But he wrote music in many other genres as well, including music for solo piano.

Most of his solo piano works are in sets, like the six Impromptus of opus 5. Sibelius wrote music for solo piano throughout his composing career, and the fact that it isn't very well known is no reflection of the quality of it. The popularity and grandeur of his symphonies tend to outshine them. Sibelius was a fine piano composer, and while not a virtuoso pianist,( his instrument of choice was the violin) he could play the instrument very well, as commented upon by his contemporaries. His skill at improvising on the instrument was good, as commented on by his pupil and friend Georg von Wendt:
When Sibelius was improvising it was important for him to get a few glasses of, say, a Burgundy, one that he was very fond of, because he was a violinist and his technical shortcomings as a pianist produced a certain performance threshold. When that was overcome, no one could have guessed that this Jean Sibelius who was improvising was not an eminent pianist. These wonderful fantasias kept a hold on you from the first note to the last chord and it was as if the listeners were intoxicated. It is a great pity that they were never written down. Those who heard Sibelius improvise in the 1890s, at the time when he was doing it the most, were able to enjoy the greatest beauty that contemporary music can offer. (Text from the Sibelius website.)
 The opus 5 set was published in 1893, about the time of his set of orchestral tone poems  Kullervo and the Karelia Suite. Sibelius wrote his piano music at a time when a composer could earn extra money by writing salon pieces for piano. sound recording was still in its infancy, so many people learned to play the piano for entertainment. Sibelius' music for piano is well written, and very musical. Some of it looks quite simple, but there are hidden beauties in these miniatures.

1. Moderato, in G Minor -  The first impromptu is but one page long, and consists of 2 sections. The first section is eight bars long and played in slow block chords. The next section is marked Thema and has a simple melody played on top of chords. The atmosphere is funereal, with no let up in the sorrow.
2. Lento - Vivace, in G Minor -  The music starts with a slow introduction, then the music turns into a lively folk dance. There are episodes when the music changes to G major, but for the most part G minor prevails. A good example of how the character of a key can change, as the first two impromptus are in the same key, yet the effect is quite different.

3. Moderato (alla marcia), in A Minor - Sibelius instructions are to play this piece as a march. There is a quiet middle section in F major before the rhythmic march begins again.

4. Andantino, in E Minor - This is a slow piece, with an underlying minor key solemnity.  The music remains in a melancholy mood throughout. Volume increases as the piece comes to an end.
5. Vivace, in B Minor - This impromptu glitters and shimmers with music that sounds almost Debussian as it goes up and down the keyboard with alternating hands. As in the previous pieces, the minor key dominates. The music sparkles, but there is a mood of melancholy to it as well.
 6. Commodo, in E Major -  The longest impromptu of the set as well as he only one written in a major key, but the music does shift to E minor in the second section. The entire piece is to be repeated, a test of a pianists musicianship. If the repeat is played as the first time through, this piece could become boring.  A beautiful miniature, simple in structure, like a jewel that a good pianist can make glow with a soft luster. The piece ends in soft E minor chords.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Mendelssohn - Rondo Capriccioso For Piano, Opus 14

No one is quite sure when Felix Mendelssohn composed the Rondo Capriccioso, with some musicologists offering up as early as 1824 when he was 15 years old. But there is certainty when it was fully composed and revised, for Mendelssohn put the date of June 13, 1830 on the revision.

Perhaps Mendelssohn revised it for a specific pianist, Delphine von Schauroth, who was from Munich. She was close to Mendelssohn's age, and they had met again when Mendelssohn was passing through Munich during his tour of Europe. They had met earlier in Paris in 1825, and Mendelssohn was quite taken with her. He thought about proposing marriage, but never did.

The Rondo Capriccioso is in two sections:

Andante In E Major - Modern research has determined that this section was added to the original etude in E minor during the revision of 1830.  It begins softly, and the melody is a Song Without Words, a type of piano piece that was one of Mendelssohn's specialties.  It lyrically leads to a segue to the next section.

Presto In E Minor - This second section is also one of Mendelssohn's musical specialties; music that is quick, light and sparkling.  The technical demands on the pianist are not excessive, but there are some rapidly repeating thirds in the right hand that are a challenge to play in tempo with the lightness of touch needed. Material from the opening section returns briefly, and the music shifts to E minor for an ending in thundering alternating octaves. The entire piece lasts a little over six minutes, and was popular throughout the 19th century. it is still played in student recitals as well as by professional pianists as an encore.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alkan - Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Opus 33

Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote his Grand Sonata 'The Four Ages' after he returned to performing in 1844 after a six-year hiatus. The work was published in 1847. Alkan lived in an apartment in Paris, the Square d'Orléans for about ten years and was a neighbor to Chopin. They became close friends, and he became acquainted with many other artists that lived in Paris at the time, including Franz Liszt. 

The work is in 4 movements, with each one portraying the ages of a man. Alkan wrote a preface to the published work where he expressed his intentions with the titles and structure of the sonata:

Much has been said and written about the limits of musical expression. Without adopting such and such a rule, without seeking to answer any of the vast questions raised by this or that system, I shall simply say why I have given such titles to these four parts, and sometimes use quite unusual terms. 
It is not a question here of imitative music, still less music seeking its own justification, the reason for its effect, its value, in an extra musical environment. The first piece is a scherzo, the second an allegro, the third and the fourth an andante and a largo, but each of them corresponds, in my case, to a particular moment of existence, to a particular disposition of the imagination. Why should I not point it out? The musical element will always subsist, and the expression can only gain by it, executing it, without renouncing it, it is inspired by the very idea of ​​the composer. Such a name and a thing seem to clash, taken in a material sense, which, in the intellectual domain, combine perfectly. I believe, then, that I ought to be better understood and better interpreted with these indications, however ambitious they appear at first glance.

Let me, moreover, be permitted to invoke Beethoven's authority. It is well known that towards the end of his career this great man was working on a catalog of his principal works, in which he was to be instructed on what plan, what remembrance, what kind of inspiration the work had been conceived.
I. 20 ans (at 20 years) Très vite' (very fast) - The plan of this sonata is quite unique for the time, as each movement is slower than the previous one, and the sonata opens with the movement with the quickest tempo, a scherzo. This musical portrayal of a twenty year old man begins with spirit and brashness as the music begins in D major, and ends up with a chord in B minor:

A more lyrical theme plays out and the opening material makes another appearance. The lyrical theme returns on chords in the right hand accompanied by arpeggios in the left. A short coda in B major brings the movement to a close.

II. 30 ans (at 30 years) Assez vite (quite fast) -  The next movement is not only the longest  of the sonata, but it contains much of the extreme technical and interpretive difficulties of the work. It is a musical representation of the Faust legend, and is complete with musical representations of Faust, The Devil and Margaurite. There has been discussion among musicians and musicologists as to how this sonata movement may have inspired Franz Liszt in his writing of his Piano Sonata In B Minor. Eight years separate the publication of Alkan's sonata (1847) and Liszt's (1854) so it is possible that Liszt saw the music of Alkan's sonata. But there is no evidence that he did, nor a clue that  Alkan's sonata was ever performed in public until the 1970's.  Alkan gives the tempo designation of Satanically to the beginning of the music, which begins in the rare key of D-sharp minor and represents Faust:
The first section of this movement proceeds in dramatic fashion with rumbling, dashing music until the Devil himself shows up. There is no mistaking who it is, for Alkan marks his entrance in the music. The Devil's theme is in B major, pompous, loud and saunters in a slightly off-kilter rhythm:
The music continues in Mephistophelian bombast until the next character of the story is introduced, the symbol of love in the story, Marguerite, a woman who falls in love with Faust but comes to a bad end through the machinations of the Devil. Marguerite's theme begins in G-sharp minor in music of simple tenderness. (The theme begins in the 4th beat of the 4th bar)
This theme changes to G-sharp major (another rare key) and also turns dramatic. This movement is in sonata form, and now that the three character themes have been introduced in the exposition, Alkan proceeds to play them against each other in a development section of highly dramatic and virtuosic music. The music of the development winds down into huge arpeggios in alternating hands that traverse the length of the keyboard:
But the music does not proceed to the recapitulation just yet. Slowly a four-bar theme marked et aussi lié que possible (as connected as possible) plays in the bass. It is the subject of a fugue that is played out before the recapitulation. This fugue grows until it reaches its limit of eight separate voices spread out over 4 staffs of dauntingly complex music:
Themes return and are transformed as the recapitulation builds to a heady climax in F-sharp major representing victory over evil.

III. 40 ans (at 40 years) Lentement (slowly) - The incredible demands of the previous movement, both technically and musically, are countered in the third movement by music that is more mellow and lyrical.The movement has the subtitle Un heureux ménage (A happy household). The life of a man surrounded by his family, with sections that depict children and evening prayers are included:

IV. 50 ans (at 50 years) Extrêmement lent (extremely slow) - The year after this sonata was published was 1848, the year that revolutions occurred in many countries in Europe, including France. Paris was in turmoil as the February Revolution in France began to undo the constitutional monarchy in favor of what became the 2nd Republic. In the chaos of change, Alkan was passed over for the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Due to intrigues and politics, a minor musician got the job instead, with Alkan becoming bitter over the loss of the position. The revolution also took its toll on any publicity Alkan's sonata may have gotten, and the work itself was unique in form and technically difficult, which also didn't help it any.

Subtitled Prométhée enchaîné (Prometheus bound), Alkan includes on the title page of the movement some lines from the ancient Greek play about the Titan Prometheus that was condemned to suffer eternally for bringing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to humans. This version of the myth is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus. Alkan quotes lines 750-754, 1051 and 1091, words that mirror the Romantic era excesses of personal emotions:
 Ah, you would hardly bear my agonies to whom it is not foredoomed to die; for death would have freed me from my sufferings. Do what he will, me he shall never bring to death. You see the wrongs I suffer!
The myth has Prometheus chained to a rock, and an eagle eats his liver. Every day his liver grows back and he has to suffer the torment of the eagle eating it again.

This myth and the lines from the Greek play set the stage for a man at fifty years of age, a life that consists of waiting for death. The movement begins with ominous rumblings:

 The movement is in the key of G-sharp minor, a key far removed from the key of D major that began the sonata. The mood of somber resignation of death seldom lifts from the music as it restlessly plods on until the closing bars that rise in volume and intensity, only to give out in the final bar that is played pianissimo.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Chopin - Twelve Etudes For Piano Opus 25

Chopin published his second set of 12 etudes for the piano in 1837, four years after his Etudes Opus 10. The second set continues in giving musical worth to technical exercises, and remains popular today. While the opus 10 set was dedicated to Franz Liszt, the opus 25 set was dedicated to Liszt's mistress, Marie d'Agoult. Why Chopin did that is still a mystery.

1. In A-flat Major 'Aeolian Harp' -  As in the first set, there are some etudes in this set that have nicknames. None of them originated with Chopin, as he didn't like to put names on his works, and he didn't like others doing it either.  Robert Schumann supposedly nicknamed this etude. An aeolian harp is essentially a box that has strings stretched across the top of it between two bridges that is put into a window or outside where the breeze goes over the strings and make them sound. This etude has a simple melody played in the top notes of the right hand while an arpeggiated accompaniment is played in the right hand and left hand.
Stretches in both hands as well as musical balance is the problem, as the grace note arpeggios need to be in the background while the melody is accentuated.

2. In F Minor - This piece is in cut time, essentially 2/2, but with eighth note triplets in the right hand and quarter note triplets in the left hand, so a slight rhythmic ambiguity arises. A kind of optical illusion for the ear. The dynamics are mostly subdued, and played legato throughout.
The main technical problem with this piece is playing in the correct time with both hands. 

3. In F Major - An etude that challenges the player with different rhythmic patterns in each hand. The opening 8 bars are repeated, and made even more complex with added notes in the right hand. The difficult rhythmic scheme runs throughout the piece.

4. In A Minor - Both hands play staccato chords with a melody line emerging here and there. An atypical piece for a composer known for his love of singing piano tone.

5. In E Minor 'Wrong Note' - Of course Chopin didn't write 'wrong' notes, but this etude is full of minor second intervals, an interval that can give the impression of incorrect notes. The left hand plays large rolled chords while the right hand plays the stumbling, wrong note theme.

The initial theme is played twice before a new theme enters in E major. This new theme is in the left hand and played in chords and octaves while the right hand plays an accompaniment in thirds that goes up and down the keyboard. This new theme is played twice and followed by the opening theme , this time in a more complex form. Chopin was a composer that seldom repeated himself verbatim in music. The ending changes things again, with wrong notes and chords. Chords are held while the inner voices of both hands play a trill. An arpeggio played triple forte leads to the ending note on G-sharp, implying the music has ended in E major.

6. In G-sharp Minor 'Thirds' -  Thirds are played throughout in the right hand, with the difficulty being playing them smoothly and at a relatively soft volume. The left hand compliments the thirds and make the etude more musical while at the same time adds to the difficulty. The phrasing of the left hand groups in the beginning slur over the bar line.

7. In C-sharp Minor -  Next to the piano, the cello may have been Chopin's favorite instrument. He wrote some pieces that have the melody in the bass and remind the listener of the range and character of music for the cello. This etude is one of those pieces, and is sometimes referred to as the 'cello' etude.
It begins with a solo in the bass. Soon it is joined by an accompaniment played in the right hand along with a counter melody at the top of the treble clef, essentially making this an etude in three parts. Towards the middle of the piece, the left hand displays runs as the right hand plays the accompaniment and melody. To bring out the two melody parts as the accompaniment plays in the background makes this difficult musically in itself, while the technical side of the music is no easy matter.

8. In D-flat Major 'Sixths' - As the nickname implies, this etude consists of the interval of a sixth in both hands until the very last bars. It is difficult to play scales and arpeggios in sixths of course, and that is what the music demands of the player.

9. In G-flat Major 'Butterfly' - One of the most recognizable of the etudes because of the nickname. The bouncing nature of the music can give the impression of a butterfly if the listener uses some imagination.
The difficulties of this etude are the jumps in the left hand, the bringing out of the melody in the right. hand, and bringing it all up to tempo. It is the shortest of the 24 etudes, and if played up to tempo lasts just under a minute.

10. In B Minor 'Octaves' - The piece begins with brutal triplet chromatic octaves in each hand. After the opening bars, notes are added between the octaves in both hands and add to the difficulty.
After the first few bars, notes are added between the octaves as a counter melody. This increases the difficulty tremendously as these notes are held down as the octaves are played around them. The middle section has the music shift to B major along with a slower tempo. Octaves continue in the right hand, and this section also has notes in between the octave notes. The right hand plays a two-part accompaniment, then there is a short transition back to a shortened version of the original material.

11. In A Minor 'Winter Wind' -  The etude begins in a quiet mood, but it is deceptive. After the first four bars, the music takes off as the right hand plays a complex pattern that is played throughout the piece while the left hand makes great leaps from playing low bass notes to chords.
The technical demands are considerable, the interpretive demands are no less so. It takes a great deal of endurance to play this etude. The final bars are a 4 - octave run of the A minor scale. There is no etude in this set (or the first set) that is less than difficult, and the 'Winter Wind' is one of the most difficult.

12. In C minor 'Ocean' -  Chopin ends the last etude of this series in the same key as the last in the first series, C minor.  Both hands play in a unique arpeggio pattern, and after the first bars Chopin throws in a melody in the top note of the right hand.

Snatches of melody interlace between the hands and are to be accented and brought out from the maelstrom of sound of the arpeggiations. The two sets of etudes have a sea of technical and interpretive difficulties that are summed up with this last one.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chausson - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 3

Ernest Chausson had a range of talents besides music. Through the urgings of his father, he completed his law degree and was appointed as a barrister to the court of appeals, but he was more interested in drawing, writing, and music. While he contemplated which way his life would go, he wrote a novel and spent time with his artist friends. He composed music as well, and played the piano as soloist and duet partner, and finally took private music lessons with Jules Massenet, an expense his wealthy family could easily afford. After these private lessons he enrolled at the Conservatoire in 1879.  His attempt to enter the Prix de Rome competition in 1881 met with failure, which led to him ending his studies at the Conservatoire and with Massenet at the end of the term.

After he left the Conservatoire he composed the piano trio which shows the influence Cesar Franck had on him even before he studied with him. The trio is in 4 movements:

I. Pas trop lent - Animé -  The first movement begins with an introduction that introduces dark themes that reappear in other movements. The remainder of the first movement itself contains fragments of the themes heard in the introduction. Chausson modulates his material widely throughout the exposition section. The end of the movement has dramatic restatements of an opening rhythmic motive of two eighth notes and a quarter note that alternate with more lyrical material. The rhythmic motive ends the movement.

II. Vite - The piano maintains its role as provocateur in this short scherzo as it scampers about while the two stringed instruments try to resist its influence. The structure is not in usual scherzo form, but is more of a set of sparkling themes that contrast with other more lyrical themes. It hardly has time for great profundity as it makes its way to its end.

III. Assez lent - This movement begins with a theme heard in the introduction of the first movement. The tempo is slower, and after the theme is stated it is changed and developed until another theme that is more lyrical is heard. The movement unwinds at a leisurely pace and is both sad and passionate in turn. There is much modulation in music that seems to slow down the sense of time as it continues. Traces of Wagner's influence on Chausson can be heard as well as Frank's, and the music ends in quiet repose.

IV. Animé - The final movement begins with a waltz that is far removed from the minor key music that has preceded it. Motives previously heard work their way back into the texture and by the end of the movement the mood has returned to the bleak minor key mood of the opening. With a grand piano run, the work ends fortissimo in G minor.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Liszt - Grandes Études de Paganini

The influence that the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini exerted on composers and performers of the early 19th century cannot be overestimated. Never had any performer demonstrate the total mastery of an instrument as Paganini did on the violin. He also had a level of showmanship that helped make him world famous.

Franz Liszt was already an accomplished concert pianist when he first heard Paganini in Paris in 1832, and was determined to do for the piano what Paganini did for the violin. He began to practice the piano even more strenuously until he had become the most acclaimed pianist of his time.

It was natural that Liszt would use the music written by the man who inspired him in some way, and the result was the first version of the six Grandes Études de Paganini of 1838, which  contained technical difficulties that were impossible for anyone else to play but Liszt, Eventually in 1851 he revised them and made them less technically demanding, but to this day the revised version contains some of the most technically demanding pieces in the piano repertoire.

I. Étude No. 1 In G Minor (Tremolo) - Among the first published works of Paganini's opus 1 were the famous 24 Caprices For Solo Violin. These works revolutionized violin technique. Paganini opened up possibilities for the violin that were unheard of before his time, and Liszt used some of these works as inspiration for his etudes. The first one in G minor begins with a introduction taken from the 5th Caprice of Paganini and begins with arpeggios. The main body of the etude is taken from the 6th Caprice and consists of a theme placed against tremolos. The piece ends with another arpeggiated reference to the 5th Caprice.

II.  Étude No. 2 In E-flat Major - Taken from the 17th Caprice of Paganini, The theme of this etude is a rather simple one, but the accompaniment and manner of its presentation bristles with scales, arpeggios and all manner of keyboard acrobatics as does the original version for violin.

III.  Étude No. 3 In G-sharp Minor (La Campanella) - This etude is taken from the finale of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 In B Minor. The nickname translates to 'Little Bell', and Liszt gives the impression of a little bell by playing in the piano's high register. It is the most popular of the set.

IV.  Étude No. 4 In E Major (Arpeggio) - Taken from the 1st Caprice of Paganini, this etude is written all in the treble clef on one line in imitation of solo violin music. The lowest note in the piece is the first G below middle C, which is the lowest note on the violin.  

V.  Étude No. 5 In E Major (La Chasse) - From the 9th Caprice of Paganini, this etude has the horn calls and excitement of the translation of its subtitle, The Hunt,

VI.  Étude No. 6 In A Minor -  From what could possibly be the most well known piece of music written by Paganini, the 24th Caprice, a set of variations on an original theme. Liszt was the first among many composers that used this theme for a set of variations. Liszt's version is a kind of translation of the original to pianistic terms, but isn't as inspired as Paganini's original. But Liszt wrote this set of etudes on the music of Paganini to push the boundaries of piano technique and to dazzle audiences, and they have accomplished both.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Debussy - Préludes For Piano Book Two

As with the first book of preludes, Claude Debussy wrote the second book of twelve in a few months between 1912 and 1913.  They are similar in mood to those of the first book, but the music itself is more complex harmonically and there is a greater emphasis on technique. During Debussy's lifetime, Book I sold more copies than Book II, possibly because the nature of the music was that much more unique. Debussy followed the procedure of Book I by placing his descriptive titles of the pieces at the end of the preludes of Book II.

The second book of preludes was Debussy's penultimate foray into music for solo piano. After the set of 12 Etudes written in 1915, Debussy composed no more major works for piano solo.

1) Brouillards (Mists) -  Debussy utilizes bi-tonality to depict layers of mist as the left hands plays on the white keys while the right hand plays on the black keys. This is a sort of visual representation (for the performer at any rate) of mixing while with black to create Debussy's gray colored mist. The music begins in 4/8 time and shifts meter to 3/8, 3/4 and back to 4/8 periodically throughout the piece, adding to the drifting and changing direction and speed of the mist.

2) Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves) -  Supposedly written after an autumnal walk taken by Debussy, this prelude is not morbid in any sense of something dead. It is more like the shifting colors of leaves that have taken on the colors of autumn. It is a subtle depiction of colors through changing tonalities.

3) La puerta del Vino (Wine Gate): Mouvement de Habanera - Carrying on the love of Spanish music by French composers, Debussy composed a companion piece to La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade) of Book I.  The wine gate in question is one located in the Moorish Palace Of The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The rhythm of the habanera dance runs throughout in the bass.
Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens 

4) Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) - Arthur Rackham's illustrations to Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens was the inspiration for this prelude, in particular a depiction of fairies tight-rope walking on a spider's web. The music begins with fast music that may refer to the fairies flying, with the spider web walking coming a little later.

5) Bruyères (Heather) -  A representation of the simple flower of heather. Its pastoral mood and folk song simplicity is similar to La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) of Book I.

6) Général Lavine – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk - An example of Debussy's liking of contemporary popular performers. Ed Lavine was an American juggler performer that was billed as General Lavine, The Man That Has Soldiered All His Life. Among his reported tricks was to play the piano with his toes! Debussy saw the General perform in Paris in 1912 and enjoyed his performance so much he immortalized him in this prelude. Debussy wrote other pieces in American ragtime style, with one of them being Minstrels of Book I.

7)  La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace of moonlit audiences) - There is little in the way of description or source of inspiration concerning this piece. It is pure Debussy. Whatever he meant by the title doesn't matter much. It is music of Debussyian sensuality, power and beauty.

8) Ondine : Scherzando - Ondines are mythological Scandinavian water nymphs that sang and danced on the water's surface that could also lure fisherman away from their labors. Debussy shows them playing on the rippling water as well as outbursts that depict their mischievous intent to divert fisherman.

9) Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Homage to S. Pickwick) - Debussy made a few trips to England where his music was well received, and he was an avowed Anglophile. This music is a tribute to the English author Charles Dickens, a favorite of Debussy's. Debussy doesn't let his love of everything English prevent him from parody as he begins the prelude with a rude rendition of God Save The King. Various other styles emerge, along with a jig tune towards the end.

Canopic jars
10) Canope (Canopic jar) - Canopic jars were used by ancient Egyptians to hold the vital organs of the deceased while the body and heart were mummified. The lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were each kept in separate jars for safekeeping and use in the afterlife. The lids of these clay jars were made in the forms of Egyptian gods, and Debussy had some of these lids on his mantle in his house.

11) Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) - This is in the style of his set of Etudes that were to be written in 1915. The title says it all, as it is comprised of alternating thirds throughout. The musical effect comes from changes in dynamics as the musical elements are rather straightforward.

12) Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) - The final prelude of the entire set of 24 is a grand finale and continuation of all that has gone before. With rapid scales, repeated notes, large chords and glissandos, Debussy depicts skyrockets and other fireworks that are set off on the French Independence Day, July 14th - Bastille Day. The final shooting of massive skyrockets is depicted by a double glissando - the left hand down the white notes, the right hand down the black notes. After the last sparks die away, the Marseillaise rumbles quietly in the background.


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