The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces 9780300262865

A fascinating history of the piano explored through 100 pieces chosen by one of the UK’s most renowned concert pianists

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Susan Tomes

A History in 100 Pieces

Copyright © 2021 Susan Tomes All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press) without written permission from the publishers. For information about this and other Yale University Press publications, please contact: U.S. Office: [email protected] Europe Office: [email protected] Set in Arno Pro by IDSUK (DataConnection) Ltd Printed in Great Britain by TJ Books, Padstow, Cornwall Library of Congress Control Number: 2021935438 ISBN 978-0-300-25392-4 A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


CONTENTS Author’s Note




PRE-HISTORY: FROM HARPSICHORD TO PIANO 1 Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations, BWV 988



Italian Concerto, BWV 971



Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord in E major, BWV 1016


4 Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in E major, K380, and an overview


of other sonatas 5 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Freie Fantasie in F sharp minor,


Wq.67, H.300 FROM HAYDN TO SCHUBERT: MUSIC FOR THE DEVELOPING ‘FORTEPIANO’ 6 Joseph Haydn, Variations in F minor, ‘Un piccolo divertimento’,


Hob. XVII:6 7

Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob. XVI:52



Piano Trio in G major, Hob. XV:25, ‘Gypsy Rondo’


9 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sonata for Two Pianos in


D major, K448 10

Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat major, K454



Piano Quartet in G minor, K478





Piano Concerto in A major, K488



Rondo in A minor, K511


14 Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata for Piano and Violin in F major,


op. 24, ‘Spring’ 15

Piano Sonata in F minor, op. 57, ‘Appassionata’



Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, op. 58



Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, op. 73, ‘Emperor’



Piano Trio in B flat major, op. 97, ‘Archduke’



Piano Sonata in A flat major, op. 110


20 Franz Schubert, Piano Quintet in A major, D667, ‘Trout’



Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, D929



Rondo for Piano Duet in A major, D951



Piano Sonata in A major, D959




25 Felix Mendelssohn, Variations Sérieuses in D minor, op. 54




Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor, op. 49

27 John Field, Nocturne no. 14 in C major (and others)


28 Maria Szymanowska, Études (and other pieces)


29 Frédéric Chopin, Ballade no. 1 in G minor, op. 23



24 Preludes, op. 28



Mazurka in B flat major, op. 7 no. 1 (and others)


32 Robert Schumann, Kinderszenen, op. 15



Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54



Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor, op. 63


35 Clara Schumann, Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 7


36 Franz Liszt, Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178



Nuages Gris, S.199


38 Bedřich Smetana, Piano Trio in G minor, op. 15


39 Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15





Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34



Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, op. 78



Piano Pieces, op. 118


43 Camille Saint-Saëns, Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 92


44 Mily Balakirev, Islamey: Oriental Fantasy, op. 18


45 Georges Bizet, Jeux d’Enfants, op. 22, for Piano Duet


46 Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition


47 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat


minor, op. 23 48

The Seasons, op. 37a


49 Antonín Dvořák, Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81


FROM GRIEG TO RAVEL: INTO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY 50 Edvard Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16 51

Lyric Pieces


52 Gabriel Fauré, Piano Quartet no. 1 in C minor, op. 15 53


Dolly Suite, op. 56, for Piano Duet

184 187

54 Leoš Janáček, On an Overgrown Path, Book 1


55 Isaac Albéniz, Iberia


56 Claude Debussy, Images, Series 1



Preludes, Book 2



Sonata for Cello and Piano


59 Erik Satie, Gymnopédies


60 Ferruccio Busoni, Fantasia after Johann Sebastian Bach, BV253


61 Enrique Granados, ‘Quejas, o la Maja y el Ruiseñor’


62 Amy Beach, Sketches, op. 15


63 Alexander Scriabin, Piano Sonata no. 5, op. 53


64 Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18




Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op. 30

66 Maurice Ravel, Miroirs



Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in A minor



Piano Concerto in G major

234 vii




70 Arnold Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Piano, op. 23


71 Béla Bartók, Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs,


op. 20/Sz 74 72

Contrasts, Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, Sz 111


73 Alban Berg, Piano Sonata, op. 1


74 Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Sonata no. 7 in B flat major, op. 83


75 Francis Poulenc, The Story of Babar the Elephant


76 Dmitri Shostakovich, Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67




Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major, op. 102

78 Olivier Messiaen, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus


79 John Cage, Sonatas and Interludes


80 György Ligeti, Musica Ricercata


81 Pierre Boulez, Douze Notations


82 Luciano Berio, Wasserklavier


83 György Kurtág, Játékok, selected pieces


84 Tōru Takemitsu, Rain Tree Sketch II


85 Sofia Gubaidulina, Chaconne



86 Scott Joplin, Maple Leaf Rag (and other pieces)


87 Billy Mayerl, The Jazz Master (and other pieces)



88 Fats Waller, Handful of Keys (and James P. Johnson, Willie


‘The Lion’ Smith and Stride Piano) 89 Art Tatum, Tiger Rag (and other pieces)


90 Bebop Pianists: Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and others


91 Bill Evans, Waltz for Debby (and other pieces)




92 Women Jazz Pianists in a Man’s World: Mazie Mullins,


Lovie Austin, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott and Marian McPartland JAZZ GOES CLASSICAL

93 George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue


94 Igor Stravinsky, Piano-Rag Music


95 Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano 3a–e


96 Frederic Rzewski, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues




98 Philip Glass, Mad Rush


99 Judith Weir, The Art of Touching the Keyboard


100 Thomas Adès, Three Mazurkas


Tomorrow’s World: Where is Piano Music Heading?


Further Reading





AUTHOR’S NOTE I finished writing the first draft of this book in March 2020 just as lockdown began in the UK because of the coronavirus pandemic. Six months later, I revised it while the country was still in various degrees of lockdown. In the intervening period, when we were stuck in the house, many people told me that they had been playing the piano a lot and finding it good for their mental health. They must have been playing a range of music, but the pieces they kept mentioning were the old classics – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. In June 2020, the New York Times reported that while concerts might have disappeared, sales of pianos for the domestic market had gone up. People kept reporting that they found piano-playing an unexpected solace. Children were practising more; adults were embarking upon piano lessons, and families were singing round the piano or playing music together. For me it was heartening to think that the piano was being such a good companion, and had probably entered upon a new chapter of its history.


INTRODUCTION Writing this book has been a delight. It has made me realise that, as a pianist, my focus is usually on the particular pieces I am preparing for performance. There are always so many things to think about: interpretation, fingering, memorisation, physical security and all the other aspects of playing in public. Even though the pieces change regularly, another batch of immediate preoccupations takes their place. I have not often stepped back to take a conscious look at the history of piano music and the collective achievement that it represents. When I took the time to do so, I was deeply impressed by its quality. It seems that for more than two hundred years the piano has been the confidante of most of our greatest composers – many of them excellent pianists, who composed at the piano. Aside from the human voice, can there be any other instrument which has inspired such intense and personal music? And can there be any other instrument which has been a constant companion to so many people throughout their lives? In many homes, the piano has provided an emotional outlet, an escape route, a hobby or a focus of aspiration for millions of amateur pianists who, hour after hour, day after day and year after year, sit at the piano, delving into and dreaming their way through this wonderful music. One of the great things about the piano is that a pianist can play melody and harmony at the same time (not to mention layers of melodies and harmonies). This means the piano is one of the few instruments that can play ‘complete’ music. Many other instruments, no matter how glorious their tone, play single lines intended to be put together with other lines to form a whole. The piano is selfsufficient, and this is one reason why it has been so successful. There are other 1


keyboard instruments that can play melody and harmony at the same time, such as the harpsichord and the organ, but they are less likely to be in your living room. Anyone who has acquired a degree of comfort on their chosen instrument will know the extraordinary tactile sensation of producing music from it, as if they are actually creating ‘the material of sound’ in the same way that, say, bakers produce dough which they mould into different shapes and forms, leaving the impress of their hands upon it. All musical instruments can give their players this sensation, but the piano perhaps more than most, because its music is complex and requires the pianist to play different musical strands with their two hands, thus involving the brain in a particular way. As there are so many notes in the typical piano part, the pianist can have the feeling of interacting with and forming the sound at a microscopically detailed level, a bit like an expert embroiderer whose tiny stitches multiply to luxuriant effect. Keyboard instruments go back many centuries, and a survey could encompass Elizabethan music for the virginals, or seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music for the harpsichord. However, I have taken as my starting point the emergence of the piano as the leading keyboard instrument. In simple terms, this change took place in the eighteenth century when the plucking quills of the harpsichord and the metal tangents of the clavichord were replaced by the covered hammers of the piano. This produced a different ‘attack’ on the strings and new expressive possibilities, because the pianist, unlike the harpsichordist, could vary the tone between loud and soft at will (as one can with a clavichord to a limited extent). The piano’s range of tone and tonal projection increased as piano makers found ways to enlarge and strengthen the frames of their instruments. Music written for the piano took on a different quality from that written for earlier keyboards. The piano very quickly became popular with players and audiences, and when it was made affordable for the general public in the early nineteenth century it proved an essential item in many music-loving homes. It was considered a desirable possession even in homes where nobody played the piano. By the 1870s the French novelist Gustave Flaubert in his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas described the piano as ‘indispensable in a salon’, and in the early twentieth century the American president Calvin Coolidge said that ‘We cannot imagine a 2


model New England home without the family Bible on the table and the family piano in the corner.’ Even now, surveys show that the piano is still by some margin the instrument that people would most like to be able to play. Today, the piano still uses that basic mechanism, its hammers covered in layers of compressed felt. In an era of electronic gadgets, it may come as a surprise to people to look into the workings of a grand piano and see that it still looks much as it would have to Beethoven. This is not because piano makers have been lazy since Beethoven’s day, but because the design of the acoustic piano is a classic. It has been continuously upgraded, its mechanism refined but not essentially changed. Even the inventors of modern digital keyboards have based their sound on that of the acoustic piano, and have found ingenious ways to give the player the sensation that they are playing a leading brand of concert piano. One of the piano’s great blessings is its versatility. Solo piano music gets most of the limelight, but the piano plays a huge role in the world of collaborative music – duets for two players at one piano, duos for two pianos, pieces for violin and piano, cello and piano, piano trio (piano with violin and cello), piano quartets and quintets, piano with one or more wind instruments, piano as a soloist with orchestra, piano as an orchestral instrument, piano with chorus, piano with narrator, piano for ballet class, piano in church, piano for opera rehearsals, piano in pop groups, piano in hotel lounges . . . the piano plays its part in a vast range of activities. It also plays a crucial role in song repertoire, a very important field which tends to attract its own specialists, professional pianists who work almost exclusively with singers. From the very beginning of music history, songs have been of fundamental importance. The powerful combination of words and music is enhanced by the natural human rapport we feel with singers; their effortless primacy brings a particular dynamic to any musical collaboration in which they are involved. This often leads to their pianists being referred to as ‘accompanists’, and in fact many professional accompanists have made their peace with this term, knowing that their role is vital yet understanding that audiences cannot help responding first and foremost to the singer. In purely instrumental music, however, the piano does not face this unequal dynamic. Much as I would have 3


liked to include song cycles such as Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin or Winterreise, or Schumann’s Dichterliebe, I decided to concentrate on instrumental collaborations where the piano’s role is central or paramount. I believe that the masterpieces of piano chamber music are at least the equal of the greatest solo works. It has always seemed to me that composers reserve some of their most intimate and searching thoughts for their chamber music, so when deciding which 100 pieces represented the best of piano music, it seemed obvious that some of my choices had to be collaborative music. All the chamber pieces I have included are shining examples of their composers’ work, in some cases outshining their music for solo piano. It has been fascinating and challenging to try to represent the piano’s timeline with 100 choices. Obviously 100 is far too few – it might have been more appropriate to write ‘a history of the piano in 5,347 pieces’, but that would have tried everyone’s patience. Restricting oneself to 100 pieces is a bit of a game, but it focuses the mind. My choice has inevitably been guided by my own experience as a pianist and performer; a scholar or academic might make a different selection for other reasons, but mine is informed by my experience of learning, practising and playing this repertoire across a wide range of solo and collaborative settings. Sometimes, when I have had to choose between the playable and the unplayable, I have chosen the playable for the sake of the home pianist, but I have also picked out some of the most fiendish and dazzling examples of virtuosity, because they are fascinating in their own ways, and show what heights the pianistic imagination can reach. In other fields, the ‘100 Best’ has been a good way to give people an insight into a subject, and I hope the same is true of piano music. I quickly found it necessary, however, to allow myself to choose ‘sets’ or ‘works’ as well as single pieces. After all, famous sonatas and concertos have three or four movements and can last for half an hour or more, yet most people would agree that they should count as ‘one’. Beyond the field of piano music, a symphony is regarded as one work, and so is an opera, even though it may last for hours. So I have taken a flexible view, sometimes choosing a single piece if it stands alone, sometimes taking a set of pieces, and occasionally giving an overview of a genre such as Mazurka, Étude or Prelude in a composer’s output. Some pieces were 4


chosen because of their musical excellence, others because of their historical importance or their pianistic distinction. Some were chosen because I have fond memories of rehearsing and performing them, or because I relished the way audiences responded to them. Quite a few pieces represent several categories at the same time. I have included a fair amount about jazz, which I consider to be a special and important chapter of piano history. A lot of jazz was never written down, because it was improvised, using well-known tunes or songs as the raw material. The piano was central to jazz from the start. Luckily, we have recordings from almost the earliest days of jazz, from which it is clear that the best of these improvised pieces are as interesting as any in the classical field. They may not have been notated, but the recordings themselves have been studied, copied and revered by several generations of jazz pianists. These improvisations were not ‘compositions’ in the sense of most of the other pieces in this book, but they were musical and intellectual achievements nonetheless and deserve to take their place in the history of piano music. Jazz has also inspired a lot of fabulous piano-playing; some of the quickest thinkers and most stylish masters of the piano have come from the world of African-American jazz. The relatively small number of women composers on my list is frustrating. Because of society’s attitudes through the centuries to women making public careers, there have been relatively few women composers, or at least relatively few whose work we know about. We do know that some talented female composers were actively discouraged by their families or husbands. Mozart’s sister Nannerl was said to be as good a pianist and composer as he was, and they were taken on concert tours together by their father Leopold when they were children. But her father did not think it appropriate to encourage her talent in later years, and none of her compositions have survived. It’s well known that Fanny Mendelssohn was discouraged by both her father and her brother Felix from pursuing a career as a composer, and Robert Schumann was only tolerant of his wife Clara’s composing as long as it didn’t interfere with her running of the household. Gustav Mahler made it clear to his wife Alma that she had to set aside her ambition to compose in order to support him and his career. For these sorts of reasons there are fewer 5


women to include than one would wish. Over the centuries many women have either doubted, or been made to doubt, their right to compose music. When I was growing up, it was taken for granted by my whole milieu, including me, that composing was – like conducting and so much else – part of a man’s world. The climate for female composers is better today, but I venture to suggest that women still have to fight for the right to have ‘thinking time’ of their own, and for the opportunity to be heard. There’s an important point to be made about women pianists and their relationship to piano repertoire – women tend to have smaller hands than men do. Women have always played the piano, but they have had to play an instrument designed by men. Earlier pianos tended to have narrower keys, and occasionally in more recent times narrower keyboards have been specially made for particular pianists. But there is no such thing generally available as a woman’s size of modern concert piano. Women string players may look for a small violin or cello, perhaps built for a female player, but women pianists have to play the same piano that the men play. Of course there are male pianists with small hands just as there are women pianists with big hands, but the average male hand is bigger than the average female hand. Not only have most composers been men, but the vast majority of fingering printed in piano scores was devised by male composers and editors, who probably took their own hand as the blueprint. Women pianists will often find, as I do, that the recommended fingering – especially in nineteenth- and twentieth-century repertoire – does not suit them because it assumes a larger stretch between individual fingers. Women pianists have proved ingenious in getting round these challenges, but it is undeniable that physical comfort with large swathes of the piano repertoire comes more easily to men. Ethnomusicologists have suggested that in certain parts of the world – Europe, the English-speaking countries – there is too much focus on the composer. In their view, composers are there to provide something for musicians to play. If so, these composers have done a brilliant job. Their piano music has provided me with music which has reflected every aspect of my experience and has provided a sort of running commentary to everyday events. Whatever my mood, I know there is a piece of piano music on my shelves which will transport me in imagina6


tion to somewhere pleasing, and will make me feel better, or at least more philosophical. And I know from conversations with fellow pianists of all kinds that the same is true for them. These masterpieces of piano music provide us with puzzles whose solutions involve working on ourselves. As we do so, other solutions come into view, and it feels as though we and the music are evolving in parallel. As I worked on this book, one of the things which really struck me is the tremendous amount of fine piano-playing out there. As well as refreshing my memory of some of the great recordings of the twentieth century, I have listened to recordings and videos made by professionals, students, amateurs and talented children all over the world. Their devotion to the instrument makes it clear that piano music is in good hands. There are many paths that one could take through the great forest of piano music. This is one path, in which I touch 100 favourite trees as I pass through. I hope my chosen pieces will remind people of the wonders of piano music and give them an insight into why the piano is the king of instruments.




From Harpsichord to Piano


JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685–1750) 1. Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 In choosing 100 pieces of piano music, I’m aware that I could use up nearly all my selections on the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Just his 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier, two sets of 24 preludes and fugues, published respectively in 1722 and 1742) could take up almost half of my choices straightaway, and by adding some Inventions, Partitas, English Suites, French Suites, concertos, duo sonatas and transcriptions one could more or less use up the full hundred. There might be some justification for this, because J.S. Bach is still, after 300 years, at the top of most people’s choice of Great Composers. What is so special about Bach? His mastery of compositional forms and styles, his intellectual energy, his integrity, his sincerity and the consistently high quality of his work are all admirable. Bach came at the end of a period in which the craft of music, rather than the personality of the composer, was considered of prime importance. Shortly after Bach’s time, the emphasis moved to the drama of the composer’s feelings, the sense that composers can give us of their grappling with fate and individual experience. Craft remained essential, of course, but by Beethoven’s time the element of drama had come to the forefront, whereas in Bach’s music, craft is still paramount. His keyboard works are a testament to this kind of craft, the result of hard intellectual work over many years combined with a keyboard player’s love and understanding of what’s involved in playing an instrument. It should perhaps be admitted that many young pianists only know Bach through his keyboard music and have not yet had a chance to encounter the largescale dramatic works on religious texts – the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion, the B minor Mass, and the rich cycle of church Cantatas which gave Bach the opportunity to display to the full his insight into human nature. His keyboard works, however, are not based on texts and have no words or obvious story. For young pianists, this can make the study of Bach a little dry. Bach was keenly interested in the art of combining different musical lines so that they work wonderfully 11


together without any line having to sacrifice any portion of content or detail. This makes his keyboard writing very ‘busy’; often there are two, three, even four lines active at the same time, all with melodies to make smooth, and complicated fingering to attend to. The rhythms are often quite straightforward, but the rhythmic activity is lively and constant. In Mozart’s writing, by contrast, there is often an intricate melodic line in the right hand while the left plays a simpler bass line. Bach rarely does this. In fact, he seems to make a point of giving every line of counterpoint an equal share of activity, almost as if it were a moral principle to do so. For the player, this demands a constant attention – there is hardly a moment when one can coast along, taking one’s eyes off the detail, for there is always something happening in one line or another, often in several lines simultaneously, and the interweaving of strands calls for ingenious fingering patterns. As a young pianist myself I remember finding this laborious. At that stage I had only come across some preludes and fugues, and a few Inventions. It was much later that I encountered Bach’s orchestral and choral music, and when I had taken in its splendid architecture and emotional sweep I then realised that I could hear echoes of it in the keyboard music, which made me want to explore more of that music. Bach’s life and the emergence of the piano only overlapped slightly – the piano did not start to be developed until he was already a mature composer. His main instruments were the harpsichord and organ; when Bach used the word ‘clavier’ he probably meant a range of keyboard instruments including harpsichord and clavichord, and sometimes such music was suitable for the organ too. Bach would have played a range of harpsichords, some with one keyboard or ‘manual’, some with two. The sound was made by a plectrum plucking the string. This made the sound of the harpsichord distinctly different from that of the piano, where a small rounded hammer-head strikes the string from below. In the early days of the piano, there was not much difference between the carrying power of the piano and that of the harpsichord, but the piano gave the player more control over the volume of each note, which opened up more expressive possibilities. 12


As far as we know, Bach encountered the piano round about 1736, when he was already fifty. In imitation of the Italian inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori who first developed a prototype of the modern piano in the 1720s, the Dresden instrument maker Gottfried Silbermann had built a piano, which Bach was asked to try. Bach admired the tone but found that it was too weak in the high register, and too hard to play. Silbermann was disappointed, but eventually set about making improvements. There is a gap in our knowledge of Bach’s acquaintance with pianos until 1747 when he went to Berlin to visit his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, then the official harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Frederick had bought a number of recent pianos made by Silbermann and J.S. Bach was again asked to try them. Legend has it that the king himself composed a very complicated theme and asked Bach to improvise upon it (although some historians have thought it more likely that C.P.E. Bach, at his majesty’s request, supplied the theme and took some delight in devising something complicated enough to test his father’s famous powers of invention). At any rate, this theme later became the basis for J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering, the gigantic collection of fugues and canons which he composed in his last decade. By then Bach was more focused on the art and craft of composition than on the particular instruments which would play his music, and we do not know whether his encounters with Silbermann’s pianos were of lasting significance to him. Although Bach’s harpsichord music continues to be played and appreciated on the harpsichord, pianists have always claimed that his music sounds just as good if not better on the modern piano. Many believe that if the modern piano had been around in Bach’s time he would have liked hearing his music played on it, and might have written new music to play to its strengths (for example, experimenting with the sustaining pedal, which his harpsichord lacked). We know that Bach, like many composers of his age, was open-minded about exactly what instrument was used, and famously some of his works (for example The Art of Fugue) don’t specify the instrumentation. Nevertheless he was a practical person; his keyboard music was written for the instruments he knew, not for some imagined future development of them. We might guess that he would welcome the sound of his Goldberg Variations on the modern piano, and so he might, but the question must remain open. 13


It’s important that today’s pianists should have an idea of what the harpsichord sounded like, so that they can factor it into their decisions about how to play Bach’s music. For example, many pianists routinely use the sustaining pedal to create the illusion of ‘legato’, the smooth linking of one note to another. This was not an option on the harpsichord, where legato had to be created by fingerwork alone, one finger not leaving a note until the next finger has gone down on the next note. The resulting sound, dry but smooth, is very different from the legato we customarily hear in today’s piano music and is a sonority worth learning to create. The argument for playing Bach on the piano received a boost in 1955 when the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations. At the time, the piece was not part of standard piano repertoire and was considered the specialist preserve of harpsichordists like Wanda Landowska. Gould (then only twenty-two) persuaded his record company to let him try his hand(s) at the Goldberg Variations on a Steinway piano. The result made his name and set many pianists scrambling to bring Bach’s music into the fold. Gould had a brilliant mind and a wonderfully nimble technique and clarity of articulation, made even clearer by the rather dry, close recording on which he insisted. He was keenly interested in the editing process, and the result is a rare amalgam of old music sounding sparklingly new on a modern instrument. (He recorded the Goldberg Variations a second time in 1981, and that version also has many fans.) Following his example, pianists everywhere descended confidently upon Bach’s keyboard works and snatched them up for recital programmes. At the time of writing there is a healthy spread of approaches to Bach’s keyboard music, from historically aware performances on harpsichord to piano interpretations using all the resources of the modern instrument, jazzed-up versions with drums and bass, and performances on accordion, electronic synthesiser and digital pianos. Let us stay with the Goldberg Variations to consider why they have become a staple of modern piano recital repertoire. Their origin is one of the more charming legends of music history. Bach had an occasional pupil, Johann Goldberg, who was in the service of Count Kaiserling, the former Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony. Count Kaiserling was troubled with insomnia and used to 14


summon Goldberg to play the harpsichord to him when he couldn’t sleep at night. The Count mentioned to Bach that he would like some new and restful pieces which Goldberg could play to him. Bach’s response was to compose a grand set of thirty variations on an ‘Aria’ which appears at the beginning and end of the set. How much of this story is true, we are not sure. Bach was not in the habit of writing sets of variations, and even after writing this magnificent set he didn’t adopt the habit. It’s possible he was just taken with the idea on the spur of the moment, or perhaps Goldberg suggested something interesting enough to keep himself awake when he had to get up in the night to play harpsichord music to his employer. Goldberg himself appears only to have been a teenager at the time. But of course teenagers can be brilliant players, so Goldberg’s age doesn’t rule out the truth of the story. At any rate, Bach composed a real tour de force, almost a compendium of keyboard styles from the graceful melodic sarabande which forms the ‘Aria’ to the rapid acrobatics of the fastest variations. The structure of the work is ingenious. All the variations are based not on the melody but on the simple 32-bar harmonic progression we hear in the bass of the Aria; these take the eight-bar phrases to cadences (resting points) in G, D, E minor and G. The melody of the Aria is, however, memorable. Its principal features are graceful downward-drooping phrases. Although the bass line proceeds in units of eight bars, the melody divides into units of four bars, so that each bass line unit has a pair of melodic phrases above it. This remains the case until the last eight-bar unit, where suddenly the right hand has a continuous eightbar melodic line as well. Most of it is in running semiquavers, which gives the effect of the music gathering energy towards the end. Bach was particularly skilled at this effect, a sort of musical friction derived from something which seems to be speeding up as something else winds down to a close. After the Aria and Variations 1 and 2, Bach embarks on a pattern of variations grouped in threes. At the start of every group there is a canon (a melody followed at a given distance by an imitative melody). The first canon is ‘at the unison’, meaning that the imitative melody is at the same pitch as the model melody. The second canon (three variations later) is ‘at the second’, meaning that the imitation occurs a note higher than the model. And so on: the third canon is ‘at the third’, 15


the fourth ‘at the fourth’, all the way to Variation 27 which is ‘at the ninth’. This set of canons alone is an impressive achievement. In each group of three variations, the middle variation is of independent character. In these ‘middle pieces’ we encounter various Baroque dances, a fughetta (a little fugue), an ‘overture’ with stately dotted rhythms in the French style, and two of the loveliest pieces in this or any other composition, Variation 13 in G major and Variation 25 in G minor – both of them featuring intricate lyrical melodic lines, like the passionate violin solo ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ which is a high point of the St Matthew Passion. And in each group, the third item is a brilliant piece of writing to be played on the two harpsichord manuals, keyboards one above and behind the other on the same instrument, allowing for different sonorities to be contrasted and enabling the hands to cross without hitting each other. This group of variations naturally causes the most technical difficulty on the modern piano with its single keyboard, for the pianist’s hands must often compete for space when crossing over one another. So Bach’s design gives us nine groups of three variations, each beginning with a canon and ending with a display of brilliant fingerwork. This takes us up to the joyfully clattering Variation 29. Variation 30 is a ‘Quodlibet’, a form well known in the Bach family with its many musicians; at the end of family gatherings they would have fun playing and improvising on whatever instruments they had, often incorporating folk songs. In this cheery variation, Bach reveals nothing about what he might be quoting, but scholars have identified at least two earthy songs which are woven into the melody line. ‘I haven’t been with you for so long’ is one, and ‘Cabbage and turnips have driven me away’ is another. Many have found it surprising that Bach decided to end such a complex and dignified structure with folk song, but there is something grounding about it too. After this, Bach simply writes: ‘Aria da Capo e Fine’, meaning ‘play the Aria again and that’s the end’. The Aria itself is not supplied again, which gives the pianist the curious sensation of turning back to the beginning and starting all over again. Does the Aria sound different because of all that we have heard? In a way it doesn’t, or at least not to me; it feels more like some kind of supporting pillar being placed at the end of the design. 16


2. Italian Concerto, BWV 971 There are many Bach keyboard works one could explore, but for contrast, here is one which shows him in ebullient, outward-looking mood: the Italian Concerto, or more properly the Concerto nach italiänischem Gusto (Concerto according to Italian Taste). Bach was an admirer of the Italian concerto grosso style of Corelli and Vivaldi, where a soloist or soloists engage in musical debate with an orchestra in episodes which make great play with the contrast between solo and ‘tutti’ (‘all’, meaning the orchestra). Bach had transcribed a number of these Italian works for keyboard, taking advantage of the two-manual harpsichord to create the effect of ‘soloist’ and ‘orchestra’. Eventually Bach decided to write an ‘Italian concerto’ of his own. He included it in the second part of his Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice), a collection of works which came out in 1735. Clearly he wanted to dispel any notion that he was just a provincial Kapellmeister (director of music), for he includes not only this Italian concerto but also a French overture, both evidence of a cosmopolitan outlook. The Italian Concerto was an immediate success and even the hard-toplease critic Johann Adolf Scheibe, who had previously complained that Bach’s style of writing was ‘heavy and sophisticated’, changed his mind and decreed that the Italian Concerto was ‘a perfect model of a well-designed concerto . . . Mr Bach has taken almost single-handed possession of the clavier.’ The concerto is an example of Bach trying his hand at the lighter, more melodic, ‘galant’ style of composition favoured by his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, who were composers too. The piece is notable for its good humour and high spirits. It is in three movements, two cheerful outer movements framing a glorious slow movement. Bach has written ‘forte’ and ‘piano’ over certain passages to tell the harpsichordist which bits to play on the lower (grander) manual and when to use the upper manual. On the modern piano, there is only one keyboard, so the harpsichord’s built-in layers of sound must be imitated on the piano by the player’s tone control and ability to vary the dynamic. When one attempts to follow Bach’s ‘forte’ and ‘piano’ indications, however, one discovers that they are not the entire solution, because some passages could be imagined as



either ‘orchestral’ or ‘solo’ or both, and sometimes one hand appears to be ‘the soloist’ while the other is ‘the accompaniment’. Moreover, sometimes the orchestra must be loud while the soloist is soft, and occasionally it is the other way round. This, after all, was written as a keyboard piece and not a collaboration between harpsichord and orchestra; we are in the realm of the imaginary, and with these fluid musical lines it is as well not to be dogmatic. With the crisp articulation of the harpsichord, it is easier to convey the expressive meaning of the rests. Bach has a wonderful way of making his rests ‘tell’, and pianists should make an effort not to pedal through them or lazily hold down the keys too long so that the rests don’t speak. For example, at the end of the first fourbar phrase, there is a one-beat rest. Played correctly, this rest contributes a rhythmical silence charged with excitement. The rest is almost as important as the notes themselves, and there are many other such examples. Clearing away the notes immediately their prescribed duration ends will allow other lines to come through, for example when the ‘orchestra’ enters with more rapid notes as the soloist is just finishing off a phrase. Bach doesn’t give an overall tempo indication for the first movement, but the bars with especially rapid figuration (those with demisemiquaver movement) would suggest that the tempo should be steady enough to allow this fast decoration to register in all its sparkling precision without becoming gabbled. Bach indicates ‘Andante’ for his D minor slow movement, which probably means he doesn’t want it to be too slow (‘andante’ means ‘moving along’ in Italian). This is a marvellous structure wherein the bass follows a repeating rhythmical pattern throughout while the melody line weaves and embroiders a most beautiful design in the air above it. The movement divides more or less into two equal sections, the first half moving from D minor to F major, the second half starting again in D minor and, making some slight detours to other keys, winding its way back to a D minor close. In both halves, the lead-up to the final settling on a key is done by means of ‘pedal notes’ in the bass; that is, low notes which repeat in every bar and build up our expectation of what is going to happen harmonically. It is easy to imagine these low notes, in this case repeated quavers (C in the first half leading towards F major, A in the 18


second half leading towards D minor), being played ‘pizzicato’ on cellos or double basses. Above the hypnotically steady rhythm of the bass, the right hand superimposes phrases of various lengths, entering after only three ‘orchestral’ bars and gradually extending its phrases, so that by the time the pedal notes enter in the bass, the melody is embarking on a very long phrase which goes all the way to the cadence. In the second half, the soloist continues to spin very long phrases, dipping and weaving without ever coming to rest until the cadence into D minor a few bars before the end. Although the melodic line may seem to have the character of an improvised embellishment, such as a gifted player might be able to undertake with some indication of the underlying harmonies (e.g. ‘figured bass’), Bach goes to the trouble of writing out exactly what he wanted to hear, and indeed his line is so lovely that it is impossible to imagine an improvisation could match it. After we arrive back in D minor, five bars before the end, there is a little coda or tailpiece in which the soloist inflects the intricate melody line with some unexpected and poignant chromatic notes, another example of how Bach can make us feel that music is somehow gathering internal energy at the same time as it is drawing to a close. If played as he wrote it, the final bar of the slow movement may seem shockingly abrupt, for Bach cuts off the music after only one beat, followed by two beats of silence. It takes nerve to do it, but is worth trying, because it illuminates the fact that the music ends as the architectural design is completed. A self-indulgent effect of lingering on the final notes, letting them ring ‘sadly’ on, is no part of his design. The final Presto is an unstoppable display of great good humour as well as contrapuntal invention. It’s composed almost entirely in running quavers and crotchets, and it moves mainly between F major and its most closely related keys, but gives the impression of having an inexhaustible fund of ideas about what to do next. The tempo should not be allowed to run away and get faster and faster, as often happens in performance, because the charm of this Presto is enhanced by its dance-like poise. The musical interest keeps swapping from one hand to the other, so that rather like one of Bach’s two-part Inventions, there seems to be 19


good-natured competition between the hands to grab musical ideas from one another. Sometimes a third strand is introduced, so that for example the right hand plays both melody and descant, while the left hand marks out the crotchet beats (often marked ‘forte’) like jolly double-bass pizzicatos. There is not a single silent beat in the movement; each time a long phrase comes to an end in one voice, another voice rushes to fill the potential gap with a scale passage introducing the next motif. Bach had certainly mastered the vivacious ‘Italian style’ of Vivaldi and Corelli, almost outdoing them in wit and ingenuity.

3. Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord in E major, BWV 1016 Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord are not as well known as, say, his sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, but they are at least as fine. Written during 1717–23 when Bach was employed at the court of Cöthen in Germany, they are amongst the first duo sonatas where the instruments are treated as equal partners. Before Bach’s time it was the custom to have the violin part written out and the harpsichord part consisting only of a bass line with ‘figures’, that is, little numbers below the notes which told the keyboard player what chord to play above any given bass note, leaving the player to add any other tasteful elaborations which came to mind. In his sonatas for violin and harpsichord, Bach moved on from this custom; both parts are completely written out (apart from a few passages with ‘figured bass’), a decision essential when the interplay of parts is so intricate. Musically, Bach makes it absolutely clear that he regards the two players as equal. He treats the violin and the harpsichordist’s right hand as conversational partners, swapping ideas and chasing one another through the movements. The harpsichordist’s left hand generally plays the role of a viol or cello, laying out the bass line in steadier rhythms. In this sense, Bach’s duo sonatas are modelled on the ‘trio sonata’ made famous by Corelli, where two treble instruments (violins, perhaps, or flutes or recorders) would take the starring roles while the bass line was played by a bass viol player or a cellist, with a harpsichord or organ duplicating that bass line and adding appropriate chords. (As there were four players 20


involved, one might think that this would be more accurately called a ‘sonata a quattro’, but ‘trio’ refers to two melody parts plus a bass line.) But here Bach upgrades the keyboard part and gives it both solo and accompanying roles, so that the player is supplying two of the three roles in a ‘trio sonata’. A quarter of a century after J.S. Bach’s death, C.P.E. Bach (a leading composer of the next generation) sent his father’s six violin and harpsichord sonatas to Johann Forkel, who was preparing a biography of J.S. Bach. C.P.E. Bach said of the sonatas that ‘they still sound very good, and give me a lot of pleasure, even though they’re over fifty years old’. If fifty years seemed a long time to C.P.E. Bach, how astonished would he be to learn that three hundred years later they are still giving pleasure? Today one hears them played with violin and harpsichord and with a modern piano; each instrument brings out different facets of the music. In a larger hall it may be difficult to hear the harpsichord with clarity. On the other hand, its crisp articulation can bring life and air to dance-like movements especially. The modern piano with its superior sustaining sound is in some ways a better partner for the violin, but incautious use of the pedal can pour a thick sauce over tasty little details. My favourite in this set of sonatas is no. 4 in E major, BWV 1016. It is a substantial four-movement work based on the Italian style of a slow movement, a fast movement, a slow movement and a fast finale. Right from the start one feels Bach’s superb control of his musical ideas. The opening Adagio could have come from the St Matthew Passion or one of Bach’s church cantatas. As the piano sets up a steady tread with repeating rhythmic motifs, the violin traces a rhapsodic line, subtly moving against the piano part in phrases of irregular length. In the bass of the piano part, a low octave E tolls through the first seven bars, building up tension until in bar 8 a shift of just a semitone feels like a major departure. Throughout the movement, the tension between the steady keyboard part and the virtuosic violin part is beautifully wrought, each part obviously needing the other, as though representing a parent walking stoically onward while a child joyfully runs rings around them. The second movement brings a change of mood; the pianist bursts out with a cheeky tune which sounds almost like one of the folk songs Bach quotes in the 21


Goldberg Variations. As the violin enters with an echo of this tune (and the piano moves on to a counter-theme) it becomes clear that this is going to be an imitative movement, and not just between the violin and the pianist’s right hand: the left hand is also drawn into the debate, leaving its bass line duties to become an active third partner in the back and forth. This is one of many movements where, employing only the most basic rhythms (mainly crotchets and quavers, and hardly a dotted note in sight), Bach finds it easy to weave together theme, countertheme and other motifs in all kinds of ways which fit perfectly and never seem strained. In the second slow movement, now in the more melancholy key of C sharp minor, the roles of soloist and accompanist are continually swapped between the two players (in contrast to the opening movement, where the roles are fixed). Again, there is beautiful balance between the simple ‘walking’ crotchets of the bass line in their four-bar units, the pulsing quaver chords (always with the first quaver of the bar missing) and the lilting triplets of the ‘vocal’ line, which passes from one instrument to the other. C.P.E. Bach had remarked to Forkel when sending him the sonatas that ‘there are some Adagios here, which even today one could not compose in a more singing style’. C.P.E. Bach sometimes found his aged father’s liking for complicated fugues a bit trying and preferred the graceful melodic style of his own era, so this is a compliment from him. As the movement progresses, the singing lines move against one another in canon, in opposite directions, and weaving around one another. Compared with the rhapsodic, virtuosic quality of the opening movement, however, this second slow movement is more like an intimate conversation between two people who know the value of expressing themselves with restraint. The final Allegro is another feast of three-part imitative writing, the left hand liberated from the steady path it walked in the previous movement. Often it supplies punchy rhythmic motifs, but eventually it joins in with the chase as scurrying semiquavers are passed from one voice to another. The movement divides into three big parts: an opening section which recurs at the end, and in the middle a development that begins with a delightful shift into triplets on the violin, echoed by the piano. Triplet and semiquaver figures start to compete for attention, until 22


at the midpoint of the movement the triplets suddenly vanish, the lilt vanishes with them, and the rest is an energetic tussle between quavers and semiquavers. Most pianists will find it tricky to work out a good fingering for some of the rapid passages, and it would certainly be useful to have a sixth finger on each hand. We must remember, however, that our modern obsession with smooth legato fingering was not shared by the harpsichordists of Bach’s time. In playing such fiddly passages, they probably jumped around the keys, lifting their hands as necessary rather than passing the thumb under. This is tricky in a different way, but can give a pleasant feeling of improvisation.

DOMENICO SCARLATTI (1685–1757) 4. Sonata in E major, K380, and an overview of other sonatas Domenico Scarlatti, the son of opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti, was an Italian harpsichord composer of the Baroque era whose career also brought him into contact with the early piano. At first he followed in his father’s footsteps, concentrating on vocal works, but the second half of his life brought him travel opportunities which changed his musical outlook. Scarlatti moved to Lisbon in 1719 as a court musician and became the music master of Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal; a decade later when she married Crown Prince Ferdinand, the future King of Spain, Scarlatti moved with her royal entourage to Seville and later to Madrid. The influence of Portuguese, Spanish and Moorish music made its way into his compositions. His pupil, the princess, was a talented keyboard player who held regular musical evenings in her royal apartments. For a period of seventeen years she and her husband Ferdinand were ‘in waiting’ to ascend to the throne of Spain. This was a stressful period, for the ailing and depressive King Philip V led a dysfunctional life. The whole court was required to rally round and support him in, for example, his eccentric wish to rise at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, dine at 3 a.m. and go to bed at 5 a.m. Even when Ferdinand VI succeeded his father, the gloomy atmosphere of the court was not entirely dispelled, because the new king had inherited his father’s 23


tendency to depression. Queen Maria Barbara often asked Scarlatti to come and improvise for her on the harpsichord and it is not difficult to imagine how earnestly Scarlatti must have wished to cheer her up and distract her. The queen possessed a number of keyboard instruments including a fortepiano; we don’t know how much notice Scarlatti took of the piano, but he would certainly have tried it and might well have envisaged some of his sonatas being played on it. Scarlatti was also a card player who liked to gamble. In his sixties he ran up gambling debts which, allegedly, the queen offered to pay off in exchange for some written-out copies of the keyboard sonatas she had so much enjoyed. Whether or not this is strictly true, we know that this was the golden era of Scarlatti’s keyboard writing. When Scarlatti moved to Spain he spent the first few years based at the Alcázar palace in Seville, surrounded by magnificent Moorish decorations whose colour and detail found echoes in his music. He must also have heard the popular music of Spain with its Moorish, flamenco and gypsy influences, and its guitars, mandolins, castanets and drums. Such music often uses a mode, or type of scale, known as the Phrygian mode; we can find it by starting on the note E on a keyboard and playing all the white notes up to the next E. Several of the notes may seem exotically sour to ears accustomed to the traditional major scale (C to C on the white notes). In particular, the second note of the Phrygian mode (if starting on the note E, this second note would be F) has a ‘flattened’ sound which Scarlatti sometimes combined with an E major chord to add spice to the chord, a device used to this day by flamenco guitarists. Scarlatti’s use of this mode gave his music a piquant flavour which set it apart from the music of his exact contemporaries Bach and Handel (all three great composers were born in 1685). In fact, most of Scarlatti’s sonatas were not published or known until long after his death. They found a wider audience only in the mid-nineteenth century when Clara Schumann and Liszt began including some Scarlatti in their recital programmes, but it was only really in the twentieth century that they became part of standard piano repertoire. In 1906 the Neapolitan pianist Alessandro Longo published the first complete edition of the sonatas in a numbering system of his own devising, and in 1953 the American historian and 24


harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick published a chronological catalogue, whose K numbers are now the standard way of identifying the sonatas. To a modern reader, ‘sonata’ may suggest a longer work, but Scarlatti used it simply to mean an instrumental piece, something played (or ‘sounded’) rather than sung. Most of his sonatas take no more than a minute or two to play. Scarlatti favoured lively tempos, and many of his sonatas are little nuggets of vivacity. They are generally in two halves, structured like the dance movements of a Baroque suite: the first half moves to the dominant key (say, from C major to G major) and the second half, musing on the same musical material, works its way back to the home key. Within this simple formula Scarlatti produced a huge variety of moods: lively, melancholy, manic, graceful, exuberant and thoughtful. He skilfully deploys bittersweet flavourings with the result that many of his majorkey sonatas have a vein of melancholy running through them, while many of his minor-key pieces vibrate with alertness. The physical pleasure of darting about the keys, using the fingers with jeweller-like precision to put a sparkle on the musical surface, communicates itself vividly to the player. In piano competitions, I have often heard Scarlatti sonatas played at top speed to show off rapid fingerwork, but to rattle them off in this way is to lose their savour. It may be true that some of them were designed to be played in settings where aristocratic guests could lend only an occasional ear to the music; perhaps as a result Scarlatti allowed his own facility at the keyboard to steer his compositions, but he always took care to sculpt their pleasing surface into delicate loops and curves. Moreover, the player who takes Scarlatti for granted may find that they trip over his elegantly contrived distortions of expected phrase lengths. The ‘ping’ of the harpsichord’s plectrum on the string is very different from the sound of a piano’s felt hammer. When we play Scarlatti on the modern piano, should we imagine that we are playing a harpsichord, or should we rejoice that the piano offers more dynamic possibilities? As usual, different instruments bring out different qualities and offer different advantages. Many of his delicate effects are best appreciated on the older instrument whose plucking mechanism could be used to create delicious scrunches on chords and glittering, silvery scale passages, reminiscent of Spanish guitar technique (e.g. the Sonata in D major, K492, or the 25


Sonata in C minor, K56). Scarlatti often writes in a fluent two-part style, left and right hand working in lively counterpoint (for example, the Sonata in D minor, K1), but he frequently incorporates passages of ‘Iberian’ or ‘Moorish’sounding music where important notes are decorated with rapid ornaments such as a flamenco singer might use to emphasise a word (e.g. the Sonata in G minor, K426). I’m fond of the wistful Sonata in B flat, K273, a two-part design where a lilting dance in 3/8 time gives way to a plaintive ‘jig’ whose melodic figures, repeated over slowly shifting Spanish-guitar-flavoured chords in the bass, are hypnotic. Scarlatti often seems to think in terms of contrasts between solo and tutti passages, as though imagining how he might orchestrate the piece (e.g. the ‘fanfares’ and ‘mandolins’ of the Sonata in D major, K96). He frequently uses fast repeating notes (e.g. the Sonata in A major, K24, the G major, K455, or the D minor, K141), a glittering effect on the harpsichord but one which can seem strenuous on the heavier mechanism of the modern piano. In earlier sonatas he makes gleeful use of hand-crossing (such as the Sonata in B minor, K27), but in later years, when he became stout and no longer found it easy to cross his hands in front of him at the keyboard, this effect is quietly dropped. In rapid passagework he often makes the hands compete for space on the same key, for example in the Sonata in F major, K17, or the Sonata in A major, K24. Sometimes he just delights in making the hands chase one another about the keyboard, for example in the exuberant Sonata in E major, K20. Some of his slower, more cantabile sonatas make one feel he might have improvised them on the piano; the Sonata in D minor, K9, the Sonata in G minor, K8, and the languorous Sonata in A major, K208, all share a pensive mood well suited to the piano. A particular favourite of mine is the Sonata in E major, K380, which seems to evoke a royal person proceeding in stately but good-humoured fashion down the palace corridor to the sound of distant fanfares. Repeated notes and chords are a feature of the sonata, but somehow Scarlatti’s use of them suggests buoyancy and poise rather than lack of invention, and their cumulative effect can be quietly mesmerising. Wanda Landowska, recording Scarlatti in Paris in the 1930s, used all the resources of her modern Pleyel harpsichord to evoke a procession 26


coming towards us and passing on into the distance, a version which made the Sonata in E major famous and attracted the attention of pianists, who by contrast have tended to adopt a more delicate, tender approach when they play it on the piano. Altogether Scarlatti wrote 555 keyboard sonatas, so there is plenty to explore.

CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH (1714–1788) 5. Freie Fantasie in F sharp minor, Wq.67, H.300 C.P.E. Bach was the second surviving son of J.S. Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara. Today we tend to think of C.P.E. (known as Emanuel) Bach as less important than his famous father, so it comes as a shock to learn that in the second half of the eighteenth century it was C.P.E. Bach who was the better known. Mozart once said that ‘Bach is the father – we are the boys!’ People coming across this quote might naturally assume Mozart was talking about the great Johann Sebastian, but in fact the Bach he was referring to was Emanuel, whose work was highly esteemed by Haydn and Beethoven as well as Mozart himself. Fifty years later, their reputations changed place once more. Mendelssohn and his generation revived the works of J.S. Bach, who has never looked back, and Emanuel Bach moved to a quieter place in history’s estimation. Emanuel Bach ‘had no other teacher than my father’ and his first pieces were in the style favoured by J.S. Bach. However, Emanuel lived at a time when taste was changing. Italian opera was becoming popular in Germany and would soon be all the rage. The complexity and formality of late eighteenth-century music was being gradually replaced by a new ‘galant’ style characterised by its elegance, simplicity and immediate appeal. The religious feeling which inspired J.S. Bach’s music was not the driving force for his son – Emanuel Bach grew up at a time when secular values were becoming more important, and he engaged with scholars and philosophers of the German Enlightenment. Musicians were starting to feel that instead of (or as well as) directing their performances in the service of God, they could aim to communicate directly with listeners, letting audiences understand and share their musical emotions. 27


Emanuel Bach was appointed court harpsichordist to Frederick the Great in Berlin. Emanuel himself preferred the clavichord with its greater range of delicate expression, but he was an excellent harpsichordist too. The king was a keen flute player who liked to play chamber music in the evenings. Emanuel, who shared his job with another harpsichordist, was only required on alternate months, so he had plenty of time for composing and teaching. During his years in Berlin he wrote an extremely influential treatise on The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753), which is still an important source for students of historical style. At the time, the use of the thumb when playing was not common; it was used when the pattern of notes made it the only obvious choice, but most passages were played with fingers 2, 3, 4 and 5. Emanuel advocates the method of ‘passing the thumb under’ to extend the hand’s range. He also talks about the importance of the musician feeling the emotions of the music. ‘Since a musician cannot move others unless he himself is moved, he must of necessity feel all the emotions he hopes to arouse in his listeners.’ Emanuel also talks about the importance of being able to improvise, commenting that nothing is a better indication of a musician’s potential for composing. Improvisation was not new, of course, but what was new was the sense that when improvising, a musician was deliberately letting us in on a stream of consciousness, aiming to show us not just how their mind was working but also how they were feeling. From this standpoint it’s easy to see that not many steps were required to get to the powerfully ‘personal’ utterances of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Emanuel Bach wrote large numbers of keyboard works – principally sonatas and concertos, but also fantasies in which he could give free rein to whatever thoughts and feelings were occurring to him. In the short autobiography he wrote in the 1770s, he says that among his keyboard works there are ‘only a few that I composed in complete freedom and for my own use’. One of the most remarkable is the Freie Fantasie (Free Fantasy) in F sharp minor which he wrote in 1787, the year before he died. In a way it resembles the sort of writing in J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, but Emanuel makes a point of unpredictable and startling changes of key, mood and volume which his father would probably have considered unfocused. Even the Free Fantasy’s appearance is interesting – there are long 28


passages where the duration of notes is indicated but without bar lines, leaving the player to decide where the music needs to ‘breathe’. There are several recurring themes – a solemn, slow opening Adagio passage; an Allegretto featuring virtuoso flourishes; and a lyrical Largo in 12/8 which appears in several different keys and also brings the piece to a close. This Largo theme may be a private tribute to his father, for in its first bar it incorporates the melodic motif that J.S. Bach used to represent his own name (BACH in German music notation is our B flat, A, C, B natural, here transposed into the key of B minor) and in the second bar it quotes from J.S. Bach’s aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (It is fulfilled) from the St John Passion. Between these helpfully recurring themes, we pass through uncharted territory as Emanuel veers from one key to another, constantly changing volume levels and moods, letting his musical lines twist and turn as though searching vainly for a place to rest and interrupting their progress with sharply snatched chords like exclamation points. Sometimes it feels as if he is writing the kind of dramatic ‘recitative’ of which his father was such a master, where a singer tells us something in rhythms closer to speech than to singing. Towards the end, Emanuel seems to be getting more and more worked up, but he interrupts himself with a final quote from his Largo/J.S. Bach theme, as if sighting home from a choppy sea. This intriguing piece gives us a chance to experience for ourselves the way in which Emanuel Bach improvised at a time when ‘expressing yourself ’ started to be fashionable. The English writer Charles Burney, who travelled through Germany in 1772 to collect his impressions of musical life on the continent, was keen to meet C.P.E. Bach, whom he regarded as ‘not only one of the greatest composers who ever existed, for the keyboard, but the best player, in point of expression . . . He is learned, I think, even beyond his father’. One night after dinner, Burney had the chance to hear C.P.E. Bach improvising for several hours. ‘During this time he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence fell from his countenance.’ Clearly this was no mere improvising to entertain the dinner guests; Emanuel Bach had a powerful desire to communicate his inner feelings, and luckily Burney was listening. 29



Music for the Developing ‘Fortepiano’


Haydn and Mozart are the first great composers who wrote specifically for what we now think of as the piano. At first the ‘fortepiano’ was scarcely more powerful than a harpsichord, but the players’ ability to control the speed of the hammers gave them the possibility of subtle expressive nuances, from softer to louder. This suggested a different way of writing, immediately grasped by these composers. Their greatest keyboard works, those with the widest range of expression and sonority, were written for the piano. When Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, he did not yet own a piano. At first he lodged in the home of the Weber family, who had a harpsichord. He used it until he got his first fortepiano, built by Anton Walter around 1782; it is not known exactly when Mozart bought it, but we know that by 1785 he owned and played the instrument in his concerts, having it carried down the stairs from his secondfloor apartment on each occasion (it must have needed a lot of tuning). Haydn too first encountered the piano in the 1780s. There is some evidence that his employers, the aristocratic Esterházy family, had a piano from about 1781. Haydn himself did not own a piano until about 1788, and did not encounter the Broadwood pianos he particularly liked until he went to London in the 1790s. Vienna was relatively late compared with England and France in adopting the piano. At the start of the 1780s the piano was still a novelty in Vienna, but by the end of the century the city had enthusiastically embraced the new instrument. It is a curious fact that although Haydn and Mozart obviously never heard the piano of today, their music often seems – at least to modern ears – to breathe more easily on the keyboard instruments which developed after their own era. What does this mean? Did those composers’ vision extend to being able to imagine and compose for a day when pianos would have a more sustained singing tone, a more velvety sonority, a bigger range of loud and soft, and more tonal projection? Or would those composers be surprised, even displeased, if they heard their music played on a twenty-first-century Steinway, Yamaha, Bösendorfer or Fazioli? Many pianists who have had the opportunity to try playing eighteenth-century music on instruments of the day have found it an enlightening experience. Some have sworn allegiance to playing that music on those instruments and no other, but others have come away convinced that the great music of the eighteenth 33


century sounds even greater if the pianist has a wider range of sonority, and therefore of expression, at their command. Ideally, every pianist should know how keyboard instruments sounded in Haydn’s day, and how those instruments felt to play, for that is an important part of a player’s sensory response to the music. The delicacy of eighteenth-century keyboard instruments is just right for certain pieces and can teach us to be sensitive to tiny nuances, but other aspects of the music may feel as if they need a bigger colour palette. Since Haydn’s day, not only the instruments have changed; our whole sonic environment has changed, and so have our expectations. Ambient noises are different, halls are bigger, listeners sit further away. We have got used to amplified music – to the extent that unamplified music can seem underpowered. We may have less patience for sitting and paying attention to the quiet detail of acoustic instruments. To reconstruct, say, Beethoven’s experience of hearing a particular piano it may not be enough to get hold of that piano and listen to it ourselves, because the sound of his piano was an ingredient in the sound-world of his day. All this makes historical reconstruction a subtle matter, in which facts and guesswork must intertwine. And although enthusiasts for ‘period instruments’ might disagree, I feel that for many listeners one of the charms of hearing historical instruments is that they sound ‘antique’ – which of course they didn’t to people of that era.

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732–1809) 6. Variations in F minor, ‘Un piccolo divertimento’, Hob. XVII:6 Haydn’s Variations in F minor are probably his single greatest work for a keyboard instrument. Their grandeur and dignity come as a surprise to those brought up on the image of ‘Papa Haydn’ as a jolly court composer. Written in 1793, the Variations were dedicated to Mozart’s pupil Barbara von Ployer with the enigmatic subtitle, ‘Un piccolo divertimento’. If this was a joke, perhaps it was in the same ironic vein as when Brahms described the titanic second movement of his B flat piano concerto as ‘a wisp of a scherzo’. 34


Haydn was unhappily married to a woman who was not musical. He once said that ‘it was all the same to her whether her husband was a cobbler or an artist’. In his personal life he was lonely, and isolated also because of his posting as court composer to the Esterházy palaces in Eisenstadt and Esterháza (now in Hungary). As a ‘house officer’ in the palace, he had to keep other employees in line and was prevented by his status from socialising with them. When he did have the opportunity to visit Vienna and attend social gatherings of music-lovers, he was very drawn to the several high-born women pianists who did take an interest in his music and welcomed his friendship. One such was Marianne von Genzinger, twenty years younger than Haydn, who had written to him in 1789 to say that she had arranged a movement from one of his symphonies for piano, and would he like to correct it if she had made mistakes? From this correspondence developed a friendship between Haydn and Marianne’s family in Vienna. On his occasional visits to the capital, he attended the von Genzinger’s Sunday music soirées, where Marianne made sure that Haydn’s favourite dishes were prepared. After Haydn returned to Esterházy, he asked Marianne ‘not to shy away from comforting me with your pleasant letters, for they cheer me up in my isolation, and are very necessary for my heart, which is often very deeply hurt’. It was a shock when Marianne died unexpectedly of a lung condition shortly after Haydn returned from his triumphant visit to London late in 1792. His friends noticed a change in his mood. He became short-tempered and seemed preoccupied. In fact, Marianne’s death was not the only absence Haydn had to confront. His friend and fellow composer Mozart had also died while Haydn was away. In London, Haydn had heard the rumours but had not wanted to believe them. When he got back to Vienna, where Mozart and Haydn had met regularly to play chamber music, he must have been struck by the reality that Mozart was no more. Both Mozart and Marianne von Genzinger were pianists, and perhaps it is not entirely fanciful to think that the F minor Variations were in some sense a tribute to one or both of them. The Variations have not one theme but two – a theme in the minor, and a theme in the major. The double-theme variation form was one 35


which Haydn had used also in his symphonies. Here two themes have different characters, the first stern and sad, the second softer and more vivacious. At one time these contrasting themes might have been characterised as ‘his’ and ‘her’ themes, a not inappropriate idea in this case. The F minor theme, which has a sober tread almost like that of a funeral march, uses phrases which have a downward pull. The dotted repeated notes in the right hand add to this effect, like an implacable little drumbeat. It’s notable that the theme doesn’t come in until the end of the first proper bar, as if it’s reluctant to start. Few of Haydn’s piano pieces have this feature – most of his themes ‘lead from the front’. Unpredictable phrase-lengths – 6 bars, 6 bars, 5 bars, 5 bars, 7 bars – keep the listener slightly off-kilter. Towards the end of the theme, a sudden jolt into G flat provokes a moment of silence before the right hand tentatively climbs down a G flat arpeggio before swerving back just in time to the home key of F minor. The F major theme is contrasted in character, more melodic, with phrases that reach and sometimes fly upwards in a graceful spray of notes in the treble. It softens the austere effect of its partner. After we have heard them both, there are alternating variations on each, the variations becoming more and more decorated and gradually more agitated in mood. Haydn evidently planned to end the piece in F major after the second of the F major variations. But he later added, in another ink, a startlingly different ending which raises the piece from a skilful set of double variations to something with the feeling of a personal testimony. The F minor theme returns for a final statement, but comes to an unexpected halt. Then it launches into an impassioned outburst, much more daring in harmony, more virtuosic in style and more emotional in mood, like a personal declaration which has been held back until now. It is almost as if at this moment of disjunction between the theme and the coda we see Haydn straddling the Classical and the Romantic eras. He seems to begin in the eighteenth century and end by looking ahead to the nineteenth – only seven years away, in fact – with its more adventurous ‘free-associating’ harmonies. There are reminders here of Mozart’s poignant Rondo in A minor, K511, whose two opening bars (a falling fifth in the first bar, a four-note rising motif in 36


the second) may find echoes in Haydn’s two variation themes (the minor one and the major one). A conscious echo? Perhaps it is; or perhaps it is more that Mozart’s great Rondo had been transformed in his friend’s imagination into this new form. Haydn’s generous evaluation of Mozart as ‘the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name’ is often quoted. Mozart’s opinion of Haydn is less well known, but after hearing the F minor Variations we may appreciate Mozart’s tribute: ‘He alone has the secret of making me smile and touching me at the bottom of my soul. There is no one who can do it all – to joke and terrify, to evoke laughter and profound sentiment – and all equally well: except Joseph Haydn.’

7. Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob. XVI:52 In the 1790s, Haydn made two triumphant visits to London, where he was acclaimed as the leading composer of the day and found himself on every important guest list. After lonely years of serving as court composer in Esterházy palaces quite remote from his home in Vienna, Haydn basked in his English popularity. London had a thriving musical scene which included many private ‘salons’ hosted by arts-loving socialites. There he met the German pianist Therese Jansen, one of Clementi’s star pupils and one of several female pianists whose sympathy and admiration Haydn appreciated. Therese was the daughter of a well-known dancing master, whose dancing school she and her brother eventually took over and ran successfully. In 1794 on his second visit to London, Haydn composed the Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob. XVI:52, and dedicated it to Therese. The sonata is Haydn’s finest, and to judge from its technical difficulty, Therese must have been a very fine pianist. In Haydn’s day, there was no standardisation of pianos; each maker had their own style, and the style varied from country to country, from city to city, and even within the output of a single maker. When he first went to London, Haydn was impressed with the big Broadwood grand pianos he encountered. In the majestic and virtuosic E flat sonata we see the bravura with which he responded to these English pianos with their full tone and their extended range (just that year, Broadwood had produced a six-octave grand piano). The piano’s qualities also 37


seem to have inspired Haydn to write with daring harmonic freedom, for the music travels through an unusually wide range of keys. Haydn once said that during the years when he was court composer, living in the remote Esterháza palace in rural Hungary, cut off from news about what was happening in Vienna, he was ‘forced to become original’. This originality can be seen on full display in the E flat sonata. Even a glance at its notation will show that there is constant variety of texture and keyboard technique. In the first movement there are grand chordal passages, delicate singing lines in inner parts, rattling superfast virtuoso passages, sudden pauses on long chords. There are capricious lurches into remote keys. One of the most striking things about the movement is the way it suddenly cuts from one mood, texture, theme or tempo to another without warning. For example, the skipping second theme which bursts upon us in the high treble after about a minute is a move we didn’t see coming. Is it a sly reference, perhaps, to Therese’s dancing school? Haydn was a regular visitor to the family home and may well have observed her female pupils skipping across the floor like this. We hear the skipping theme again at the start of the development section, preceded by a mock-solemn introduction of three slow, quiet chords opening the door to the new key of C major. And we hear it once more near the end of the development section, this time preceded by a pause on a bass chord which clearly suggests that what’s coming next will be in C major again. But no: in skips the cheeky key of E major, one of the least predictable. And just before the final dash to the ending of the first movement come two quiet, slow and mysterious bars of octaves, an obvious echo of the equivalent gesture at the same point in the first section. Here it is shockingly extended downwards so that we seem to step off the secure ladder of E flat into the thin air of A minor. It isn’t notated as A minor (Haydn uses flats and double flats to keep the music looking like E flat), but the innocent ear perceives it as such. Haydn and Mozart both enjoyed this kind of subverting of expectations, but Haydn’s way of doing it is all his own. He has an extraordinary ability to turn on a dime and change from fast to slow and vice versa, from sparkling demisemiquaver cascades in the high treble to portentous slow chords in the bass, an effect almost like 38


modern film techniques, juxtaposing the sharp edges of things which don’t normally go together. Having been startled by the skipping motif in E major in the first movement, we aren’t perhaps as puzzled as we might have been by finding that the slow movement is also in that remote key. This movement seems almost like a free improvisation, its stately opening giving way in short order to passages of decoration, elaboration, rushing scale passages in the middle section, and Haydn’s characteristic stop-start technique where unexpected rests and silences puncture a fluid line. The mood is an unusual hybrid of dignified and volatile, as if the main character in a tragic play is attempting to state their case while a slightly hysterical commentary is provided alongside. The Finale opens with another witty gambit: we end the slow movement in a peaceful E major, but are jolted back to E flat in a move which feels a bit like the height of one’s adjustable seat suddenly collapsing by an inch. Does the chatter of repeated notes at the start of the theme contain a hint of merry laughter? Haydn gives full rein in this movement to his love of humorous lateral moves, tiny shifts of key, unexpected pauses. In the middle section, a long running passage lulls us into thinking that the momentum has now been securely established, but no: as soon as it comes to a pause, we find that the opening theme is back in fragmented form. Haydn tries it out in various keys and guises, from loud with defiant offbeat accents to quiet and wistful with a menacingly smooth chromatic bass line. (This technique of chopping up the main theme into fragments and looking at the fragments in new lights is also used by Beethoven and Schubert, possibly inspired by Haydn’s example.) Finally he plucks this chromatic bass line into the treble, marks it ‘Adagio’, and writes a soprano-like tiny cadenza that asks the player to descend a chromatic scale which, with suspicious melodrama, is marked ‘più forte’, ‘fortissimo’, then suddenly ‘piano’ on the decorative turn, as if showing off the performer’s technique. It’s a striking gesture, perhaps designed to make Therese smile. Does it recall, for example, an operatic soprano over whose platform manner they had laughed together? The cadenza heralds the return of the opening theme in fast tempo. In his sudden stops and starts, in his dashes from one location to another, 39


Haydn sometimes seems like a lizard scuttling at speed across a sunny wall, halting when we least expect it, obeying impulses of which we know nothing.

8. Piano Trio in G major, Hob. XV:25, ‘Gypsy Rondo’ To understand Haydn’s trios, we need to know a little about the vanished world of domestic music-making in his day. In the late eighteenth century, there were many firms of piano manufacturers vying to produce bigger and better keyboard instruments. The piano became more and more popular in the drawing rooms of London, Paris and Vienna. Most cultured households aspired to have a piano, and included piano lessons on the list of accomplishments which young persons, especially young ladies, should acquire in order to be even more eligible. There was already a tradition of using keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord to accompany a violin or other melodic instrument, but in Haydn’s day the fortepiano rose to prominence in its own right and became the centre of domestic music-making. In 1789 a Viennese newspaper printed the following advertisement: ‘Wanted by nobleman: a servant who plays the violin well and is able to accompany difficult piano sonatas.’ What did they mean by ‘accompany difficult piano sonatas’? The reference was probably to the kind of works which Haydn and other composers were writing for chamber music gatherings: principally conceived for the keyboard instrument, they also included lines for melodic instruments such as violin and cello. Sometimes these lines were mere doublings of what the pianist was playing with their right or left hand, but sometimes they were independent lines, and as time went on they became more and more so. Some musicologists have suggested that Haydn’s chief motive in providing parts for violin and cello was to magnify and give added dimension to the keyboard sonority. Even if the strings were only doubling the piano lines, they were in effect creating a big meta-instrument, operated by three players simultaneously. Haydn certainly uses the strings like this in his trios, but he goes further, often liberating the violin and cello from the piano line and giving them important and provocative roles of their own. He went on to develop this approach, 40


ultimately leading to some of the innovations of his late piano trios where from time to time the violin, and more rarely the cello, grabs the limelight from the piano with dramatic flourishes. Haydn’s Piano Trio in G major, Hob. XV:25, is his best-known and most popular trio, known as the ‘Gypsy Rondo’ because of the style of its finale. It was written in 1795 during his second successful visit to London and dedicated to Mrs Rebecca Schroeter, a pianist who took music lessons from Haydn and became a close friend. (In his old age, Haydn told a biographer that Rebecca was a beautiful and charming woman and that he ‘would have married her very easily if I had been free at the time’.) There are three movements, all very appealing. The first movement is a set of variations on a courtly theme announced by piano and violin together. Haydn varies the theme by putting it in the minor, by writing ever more elaborate accompaniment for it, and by disguising it in flowery piano figuration. He also inserts an episode in E minor where the violin is invited to leap about in a passage of tricky string-crossing. Such moments occur in other Haydn trios and have always made me wonder whether he wrote them with particular violinists in mind, perhaps smiling to think of their discomfiture when they discovered what he had written for them to play. In the beautiful slow movement, in the unexpected key of E major, the melodic honours are shared between piano and violin. The piano begins the story, but in the middle section the violin takes up the tale in a melting turn to the key of A major. In the reprise, piano and violin sing the melody in duet for a while, but it is the piano which has the last word. It is worth pointing out that the cello line, though more sparse on the page, has its own harmonic importance and gives a sensitive player the chance to provide counterweight to the high violin line by offering support and commentary in the bass. The finale, called ‘Rondo in the Gypsies’ stile’ [sic] in the first London edition, evokes a type of playing which Haydn would certainly have heard during his years in rural Hungary. In H.C. Robbins Landon’s magisterial volumes on Haydn there’s an engraving of a parade in the courtyard of Esterháza palace in 1791, around the time that Haydn was in residence. In the courtyard we see a group of gypsy musicians, the fiddle players holding their violins low on their chests in traditional 41


style. Bands of gypsy musicians were used by the Austrian authorities to play dance music in order to entice unwary peasants to the marketplace where they would be offered strong drink, invited to dance and later recruited into the army. Haydn was one of the first to include such gypsy tunes in his compositions. At first the piano launches the whirling dance we hear at the start, then the violin takes over, and then all three instruments relish a stamping passage which alternates two bars of soft with two bars of very loud music, and seems to invite some holding back of the tempo here and there to make the contrasts more telling. Episodes in the minor are introduced to darken the mood. For much of the reprise, the violin plays in octaves with the piano, though intriguingly it is the piano which has the upper octave and the leading voice. The final bars do not contain the composer’s permission to dash to the finish, but such a solution is often irresistible, if not in rehearsal then in the adrenalin-fuelled atmosphere of performance.

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791) 9. Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K448 Mozart wrote a number of duets for two players at one piano, but only one piece for two pianos, the three-movement Sonata in D major, K448. Works for two pianos have always presented practical difficulties, because it is not often that one can hope to find two equally good pianos in the same room. Even if a concert hall has two good pianos, there is still the problem of where the pianists can practise together during the lead-up to the concert. This was also true in Mozart’s day – the only setting in which two pianos were available would probably have been in the homes of wealthy patrons, although Mozart sometimes took his own piano with him. From childhood, Mozart had played piano duets (two players seated at one keyboard) with his sister Nannerl, a fine pianist. (She was a composer too, but none of her works survive.) In 1779 Mozart wrote a concerto for two pianos and orchestra, thought to be designed for his sister and himself to perform. Some years later, when giving lessons to aspiring virtuosi in Vienna, he acquired another 42


piano duo partner, Josepha von Auernhammer. He rated her piano-playing skills highly, but was less taken with her personal charms, which he described in an outspoken letter to his father: ‘If a painter wanted to paint the devil accurately, it would be her face he’d have to choose. She’s as fat as a farm wench, sweats so much that it makes you sick and goes about so scantily clad that you can read it as plain as anything: “Please look here”.’ However, he clearly respected her musicianship. On 24 November 1781 he and Josepha gave a concert at her house in which they performed the two-piano concerto and also gave the premiere of the sparkling D major two-piano sonata, ‘written expressly for the occasion’. In fact, the twopiano sonata is really a kind of concerto without orchestra, written for two players with virtuoso techniques. Playing duos for two pianos presents the players with many tricky problems of co-ordination, partly because the size of pianos (especially the modern piano) means that the players are much further apart than when playing four-hand music at one piano. Indeed, if the two pianos are grand pianos placed nose to tail, the two players are unable to see one another’s hands. Nor can they hear one another breathing, which takes away a valuable layer of information about exactly when one’s partner is going to launch into the next phrase. Unless you are used to it, the sound of two pianos mixes in the air above the instruments in a slightly confusing way, making it difficult to know who is producing which sound, and this seems to unnerve pianists. Even without intending to be competitive, the effort of each player to discern their own thread in the pianistic tapestry by pronouncing their part more clearly often leads to an increase in volume, producing the strenuous clattering that too easily characterises a concert or recording of two-piano music. Passages marked ‘softly’ are often the casualties of this phenomenon. Especially in fast passages, the presence of another pianist playing exuberantly can also provoke a desire to play even more exuberantly, pushing the tempo up. Considerable experience is required to keep the expression within the framework that one had imagined when practising alone. It is an art to hold one’s nerve, refuse to be scared into playing competitively, and keep a part of one’s concentration available to listen to and respond with proper humility to the other pianist; fortunately there are a few who can do it, and their recordings of K448 are treasured. 43


Perhaps one should not be surprised that in his only attempt at the two-piano sonata, Mozart immediately saw all the ways in which two pianists could collaborate. One hears them all in the first movement: playing the same music simultaneously; one pianist proposing a phrase, the other answering it; one pianist being ‘the soloist’ while the other is ‘the orchestra’; the two players trying to outdo one another; one pianist making witty little comments on the other’s charming melodic line; taking over one another’s roles seamlessly in one-bar interchanges; both pianists combining to make a symphonic effect. Sometimes Pianist 1 will play a four-bar phrase, answered by Pianist 2 with another four-bar phrase. Sometimes the two players will exchange ideas at two-bar intervals; at other times they chase one another at half-bar distances. In the slow movement, there are longer passages where Pianist 1 seems to play the role of a concerto soloist while Pianist 2 supplies the supportive flowing accompaniment that the strings might play in a concerto. Sometimes the second pianist echoes the first exactly so that one is not sure which is which, and often they divide long phrases between them, taking over from one another a bar at a time, which for the listener produces the effect of a single musical thought coming at them stereophonically. On balance, Piano 1 is honoured with more of the musical invention, which may simply have been a gallant gesture from the composer towards his talented student. The famous theme of Mozart’s ‘Rondo alla Turca’, the boisterous finale of his Piano Sonata in A, K331, finds an echo in the third movement of the two-piano sonata, whose opening theme is almost like the ‘alla Turca’ theme turned upside down. In this movement, the two players create the effect of ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ passages from a concerto, joining together for passages of great brilliance. Mozart seems to know just when to give the ear a rest from such scintillation, effortlessly sailing into a new and tender idea in a minor key, or pausing on a trill and then gracefully settling into a quiet chorale theme. Sometimes the two pianists play virtuoso passages in octaves or in thirds, requiring perfect rhythmic alignment; at other times they abandon the virtuoso style and chirp sweetly like Papageno in The Magic Flute. The D major sonata has been used in a number of scientific studies to do with ‘the Mozart effect’: the idea that listening to Mozart’s music on a regular basis can 44


improve concentration, problem-solving skills and even epileptic symptoms. In every experiment the two-piano sonata has proved therapeutic, though we can’t know whether other works by Mozart would have done the trick just as well. One study in the journal Psychology of Music (1987) found that ‘Mozart’s music neither bores the listener with low cognitive demand nor over-stimulates the listener with high cognitive demand.’ Mozart himself would probably have smiled in agreement. As he wrote to his father in 1783 about his piano concertos, K413–15: ‘The concertos are in fact midway between too difficult and too easy – they are very brilliant and fall agreeably on the ear, without of course becoming trivial. There are passages which only connoisseurs will fully appreciate, yet the ordinary listener will find them satisfying as well, without knowing why.’

10. Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat major, K454 Mozart played both piano and violin, so perhaps it is not surprising that his duo sonatas for the two instruments are full of mutual recognition and friendly give and take. His Sonata in B flat, K454, is a good example of how magnificently he could rise to the occasion when time was short. In April 1784, Vienna was keen to hear the Italian violinist Regina Strinasacchi, a graduate of the girls’ school in Venice where Vivaldi had built up a splendid orchestra and a tradition of female string playing. When she was in her early twenties, Strinasacchi went on concert tours as a solo violinist at a time when such an enterprise was very unusual for a young woman. Arriving in Vienna to play a much-anticipated concert in the Kärntnertor Theatre in the presence of Emperor Josef II, she was introduced to Mozart who offered to write a new work for the two of them to perform together. Mozart wrote to his father: ‘We now have here the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua, a very good violinist. She has a great deal of taste and feeling in her playing. I am this moment composing a sonata which we are going to play together on Thursday at her concert in the theatre.’ But although he may have planned the sonata in his head, Mozart left it so late to write it down that by the night before the concert he had only managed to notate the violin part, which Regina had to learn at lightning speed (she must have been a very good musician). At the 45


concert, Mozart put some blank sheets of paper on the music desk of the piano and played the piano part from memory, a subterfuge the Emperor was said to have spotted through his opera glasses. The manuscript of the sonata shows the piano part added later in a different ink and squashed in to the already-ruled bars, where Mozart had not left enough space for all the flourishes he had invented for the piano. The B flat sonata is surely one of his most beautifully balanced works for piano and violin, a model of how to share material even-handedly between the two instruments. Right from the slow introduction to the first movement, we see how piano and violin take over one another’s thoughts and complete one another’s sentences like the proverbial old married couple. The very first bar shows the subtle interlocking of the parts: the piano has the leading voice because it is the higher in pitch, and the violin nestles within the piano’s full chords (it was a violinist, Sándor Végh, who pointed out to me that the violinist must know they are not the leading voice here). The chordal opening gesture is followed by a graceful reply for piano alone, but when the device is repeated in the next bars, it is the violin who replies. The piano then breaks into a delightful gentle chugging rhythm over which the violin enters with an ethereal high note and a beautiful drooping phrase. This may remind today’s listeners of the famous moment in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus when Salieri talks reverently about a similar moment in the Gran Partita, K361, for thirteen wind instruments: ‘On the page it looked nothing . . . Just a pulse – bassoons and basset-horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight!’ In the B flat sonata, the instruments swap roles again, the violin taking over the ‘chugging’ while the piano discourses most eloquently on what it has just heard. In the main body of the movement, the Allegro, this courtly sharing of musical themes continues. This is no ‘violin sonata’, nor an accompanied piano sonata, but a true musical partnership. As soon as one player has been given a flourish, it’s the turn of the other one, and if one gets to pose a question, the other gets to give an answer. Sometimes it seems as if there are three musicians taking active roles: the violin line, the pianist’s right hand, and the pianist’s left hand. In the brief but 46


beautiful development section, the mood becomes more plaintive; piano and violin swap little phrases with a particularly terse little dialogue leading us back to the reprise. The Andante slow movement is one of Mozart’s most profound. Here the violin is invited to play long cantabile lines (apparently a speciality of Regina Strinasacchi’s) with the piano supporting and elaborating on what has been sung. The middle section of the movement begins in the minor key, the violin’s opening bar of the movement now subtly displaced to become the second bar of a new phrase. From B flat minor Mozart slides the music imperceptibly sideways into an impossibly remote B minor and from there into C minor before finding the path back to the home key of E flat for the reprise. This passage is so smoothly engineered and yet so adventurous that it seems to gather elements of Classical and Romantic music into the space of a few bars. When the main tune returns, we find that it and its accompaniment are now alternated two bars at a time between the players, as though neither can bear to be out of the limelight for longer than a few seconds. This sharing continues to the end, where even in the last bars we hear the two instruments duetting with first the piano occupying the higher line, and two bars later the violin taking over. The final Allegretto is almost like a scene from a comic opera, with contrasting themes of smooth demeanour and bouncy rhythmic verve. There are little themes that could have come from the mouth of Papageno in The Magic Flute, but also sad little episodes where a quiet and hesitant theme of repeated notes, stated first on violin and then on piano, is allowed to fragment gradually and drop in pitch until the final fragment is played by the piano alone at the very bottom of its register (F was the lowest note on Mozart’s piano). It’s a moment which has a typically Mozartian blend of pathos and humour. In the closing section, the two instruments seem to come to the end of their mutual politeness: the violin attempts one final statement of the Rondo theme only to be interrupted by the pianist banging out impatient octaves in the right hand. The two instruments engage in some repartee until suddenly the violin breaks free and expresses its independence in a florid triplet passage; underneath, the piano is given an insultingly simple crotchet accompaniment. Naturally, the 47


piano is able to cap this impudent display of virtuosity with an even more sparkling reply in semiquavers (it’s important here for the pianist to have a secure fingering so that the effect of effortless superiority is not lost). The two instruments unite in rhythm for the final bars, but they compete for the highest voice until the very end.

11. Piano Quartet in G minor, K478 This wonderful work is considered the first real piano quartet – a chamber group of piano, violin, viola and cello. Mozart’s G minor piano quartet was written in 1785 when he had been living in Vienna for four years, during which his own keyboard performances had helped the Viennese public to develop a taste for piano music as opposed to harpsichord or clavichord music. The piano quartet in G minor must have been aimed partly at the amateur music market, but as with many other works by Mozart, amateur musicians of the day found it very difficult. Mozart’s quartet was admired, but proved beyond the technique of all but the most accomplished players. In 1788 a reporter from the Weimar Journal of Luxury and Fashion complained that all winter, and just because this or that princess had been said to own the new quartet or to play it, he had been forced to listen to amateurs trying to play it at noisy gatherings: ‘Everyone yawned with boredom at the incomprehensible racket.’ ‘What a difference’, it concluded, ‘when this oftmentioned work is performed with the greatest accuracy by four skilled musicians in a quiet room, where the suspension of every note cannot escape the listening ear, and in the presence of only two or three attentive persons!’ It’s interesting that the reporter noticed how much there was to gain from hearing the detail of the music in a quiet room, for indeed the detail is evidence of the clarity and thoroughness of Mozart’s thinking. Not many composers bother to notate, for example, a chord in which some of the notes are to be held longer than others, but Mozart sometimes does, and if one follows his instructions faithfully one finds that there is a reason for them (he doesn’t want the thick block of the whole chord to ring on, but only certain notes which have a special role to play). His slurs and staccato marks, if actually followed (which they often aren’t), 48


show how sensitive he was to the ‘speaking quality’ of a line. Likewise, if one is careful to observe his rests, one finds that they are never random, but always used to highlight something that happens in the silence, even if it is the rhythmical effect of silence itself. There are innumerable places where the left hand plays (for example) a crotchet followed by several beats rest. One often hears these bass notes played with random length, the pianist not bothering whether they hold the bass note or chord for one, two, three or even four beats and often keeping the pedal down for added blurring. Yet if one observes the rests as written, one can notice how other things spring to life. (This is not only the case with Mozart, but he uses rests with particular finesse.) It turns out that Mozart’s rests can be like the tiny dot of white in the corner of the eye in an oil portrait: from a distance you don’t notice it consciously, but it gives a sparkle to the expression. For the pianist, playing a piano quartet is surprisingly different from playing a piano trio (piano, violin, cello), where the pianist often has to fill in the incomplete duo of stringed instruments. A string trio (violin, viola, cello) can easily provide three-part harmony, so the piano is freed from that duty and can assert itself in all kinds of different ways. Composers have had very different ways of taking advantage of this relationship between the piano and the string group. For Mozart, it was an opportunity to create something almost like a miniature piano concerto, in which the string trio and the piano are in dialogue with each other. In fact, Mozart did not treat the piano very differently whether he was composing a concerto or a chamber work, for his piano concertos often seem like largescale chamber music, while his writing for the piano in chamber works is often soloistic. The piano part of the G minor quartet is indeed very like the writing in Mozart’s piano concertos of the same period, and it matches the late concertos too in its powerful, challenging mood. From the very beginning there is passionate dialogue between the piano and the strings, giving ‘question’ and ‘answer’ in lively succession. The gauntlet is thrown down in front of the pianist at the very beginning, for the pianist’s virtuoso answer to the severe opening bars is technically very hard to play with the required combination of power and accuracy, especially in the high repeated notes. The uncompromising first theme is eventually followed 49


by a quirkily phrased quiet second theme in B flat which, over a rocking bass, makes us doubt for a moment where the main beats are. The development section opens with an unexpected modulation into E flat and from there into C minor for a new and sorrowful theme announced by the piano. The elements of this theme are treated with fascinating skill, passed around between the instruments and eventually transformed into rushing scale passages. Sometimes the piano seems to play the cello’s role, and vice versa. Eventually the rushing scales sweep in the opening theme for the reprise. But we are not finished with development, because after the main themes have been heard again, Mozart marks a repeat sign, and we hear the whole of the development and reprise once more (in practice this repeat is not often observed, because it makes the movement very long). In the dramatic coda, he continues to develop his main theme by having the piano answer its second phrase in a different way, jumping up an interval of a minor tenth from C to E flat instead of merely up an octave. This late twist in the tale provides an anxious moment for most pianists, for it is difficult to jump the tenth accurately at speed while also conveying the heightened emotional tension. The opening theme of the slow movement feels like a poetic extension of the second theme in the first movement. Here again we feel bar lines being elided by subtle co-operation of melody and harmony. Repeated notes feature in the second subject, first on the cello and then more prominently in the piano’s answer, a couple of bars which challenge the pianist’s ability to play repeated chords in the manner prescribed: quiet, semi-staccato, linking the repeated chords through the phrase like a dancer moving on tiptoe. Throughout the movement, melodies and accompanying figures are passed between all four instruments; sometimes it seems as if the pianist is playing the ‘cello line’ with their left hand, while at others the stringed instruments echo the piano’s decorative flourishes. In fact, each of the strings takes on the role of ‘coloratura’ at some point, and just as we are thinking the cello might never have the chance, it emerges with the decorative figuration towards the end of the movement, handing it over to the piano for the final bars. A high degree of technical skill is needed for each player to deliver these final decorative scales quietly and beautifully, with a fingering which doesn’t cause bumps in the gently descending line. 50


The Rondeau has the feeling of Mozart’s late piano concerto finales, with the pianist centre stage in almost every episode. There is a profusion of melodic invention, most of it extrovert in character, though Mozart manages to find several different shades of extrovert: happy, cheeky, demonstrative, and so on. Occasionally the string trio is allowed to come up with a new theme, but their themes are on the subdued side, as though they feel conscious of their subordinate role in this ebullient finale. There is more dialogue between piano and strings in the stormy E minor episode, but it is the piano which drives everything forward with its rolling triplets. Mozart saves his biggest surprise for the last page, where a final appearance of his Rondeau theme suddenly derails into the shocking key of E flat. Muttering between themselves, the participants take a few bars to recover, but the piano pulls them upwards and onwards. In the last two bars, Mozart makes the piano quote one of the earlier themes; when we first heard it (bars 71–2), it was the beginning of a phrase, but here it is the end. This is one of those Mozartian gestures which, as he wrote to his father about his piano concertos K413–15, ‘only connoisseurs will fully appreciate, yet the ordinary listener will find them satisfying as well, without them knowing why’.

12. Piano Concerto in A major, K488 Mozart’s piano concertos, especially his later ones, are so masterly that one might find oneself wondering why anyone else bothered to write piano concertos. Mozart was both a celebrated pianist and a famous composer of orchestral music; in his concertos he uses his experience of both to achieve a wonderful dialogue between piano and orchestra, the balance shifting constantly between them in a very believable way and giving his concertos the feeling of chamber music on a grand scale. Although he uses the conventional orchestra of his day, his choice of instrumentation for each piano concerto shows how sensitive he was to the specific sound-world he wanted for each piece. The Concerto in A major, K488, has always been one of his most popular. There are darker, more dramatic piano concertos in his output, but the A major seems to capture the essence of A major – sunny, good-natured, lyrical. People 51


often wonder how composers choose the keys for their compositions. Sometimes the answer is obvious because the instrument for which they are writing – for example, a violin with strings tuned to G, D, A and E – might ‘ring’ better and be easier to play in keys which allow ‘open strings’ to be used. On the face of it, the piano does not have equivalent factors which would make one key more attractive than another. There may be issues of fingering, easier in some keys than others, and matters of notation, easier to read if there are no thickets of flats and sharps. If the piano is playing with other instruments, then their technique or construction may influence the choice of key. But if the piano is the only instrument involved, how does the composer choose a key? Those with perfect pitch, that is, the ability to identify exactly what note is being played just by hearing it, maintain that each key has its own distinctive character, even on the piano. But that is a complicated claim, because pitch in Mozart’s time was slightly different from now, varying even from region to region. What today’s pianists hear as ‘A major’ is not quite the A major that Mozart would have known, and therefore it may be misleading to claim that his K488 concerto captures the essence of A major, because his A major was a touch lower than today’s. There may be a sense in which the feel of the key of A major under the hand on the keyboard – a feel which has not changed since Mozart’s day – encapsulates something unique about a key. Every key has its own distinctive pattern, and somehow provokes in the pianist a sensory experience in which pitch, sound and character are bound up with the pattern. In any case, despite the fact that pitch has risen slightly since the eighteenth century, there is some piano music which seems to capture the essence of a particular key, and the A major concerto, K488, is a prime example. It was written early in 1786 at around the time he was finishing The Marriage of Figaro, and shares that opera’s remarkable combination of joie de vivre and poignant tenderness. The outer movements of the A major concerto are sparkling and extrovert, but the slow movement is a searching aria with almost tragic qualities, a cousin perhaps of the Countess’s arias in Figaro. This was the first Mozart piano concerto I learned as a child and was an unforgettable introduction to the kind of music which deepens as you get to know it. 52


I learned it from the German edition my then piano teacher insisted on. Its preface tells us something about our changing attitudes to good Mozart playing. ‘My main endeavour,’ wrote the editor in 1925, ‘has been to modernise the Solo Pianoforte Part . . . I have arranged the slurs to obtain longer phrases, the fingering has been improved, and the marks of expression have been amplified.’ The score is littered with instructions which Mozart himself refrained from putting in, from speeding-up and slowing-down indications to crescendos and diminuendos, long slurs, indications of mood (peaceful, excited, fiery), pedal marks, and rearrangements of octaves. All this led to a more ‘Romantic’ style of playing than Mozart envisaged. When the period instrument movement got going in the 1970s, such editorial interference came to be thought old-fashioned, even misleading. Now it is considered important to work from an ‘Urtext’, a score which shows us what the composer actually wrote. Looking at a copy of the autograph of K488, which these days we can do online, we find that Mozart’s markings are remarkably sparing. There are few expression marks, dynamic markings, and no pedal marks or long slurs (curved lines which aim to show which bars should be played smoothly in a single ‘breath’). The first movement is simply marked ‘Allegro’ rather than the ‘Allegro amabile’ I encountered in the 1925 edition. And the slow movement, far from being ‘Andante semplice ma molto espressivo’ as I encountered it, is simply ‘Adagio’ in Mozart’s score. He marked the last movement ‘Allegro assai’ (very lively), not ‘Presto grazioso e brillante’. The change from ‘Andante’ to the composer’s original ‘Adagio’ for the slow movement raises interesting questions about the meaning of those two terms. ‘Adagio’ is often taken these days to mean very slow, but is an Italian word meaning ‘at ease’. Even the term ‘Andante’, which is usually taken to mean rather slow, means ‘moving along’ in Italian, and is an indication of mood and/or character rather than a straightforward tempo marking. Neither term in fact signifies ‘very slow’ and probably didn’t to Mozart, who (let’s not forget) also spoke Italian. The first movement opens in contented mood with an orchestral tutti, its sound mellowed by the inclusion of two clarinets, and the main themes of the movement are announced. Sometimes in Mozart’s piano concertos he makes the 53


soloist enter with yet a new theme, but here it seems that the piano is happy to go along with what the orchestra has proposed. The first theme is smooth and lyrical, the second theme delicate and lively, with characteristic use of repeated notes and a little dotted rhythm, the kind of thing that suits the piano so well. Part-way through the movement the orchestra sneaks in a new little theme, also with a dotted rhythm, and this is taken up by the piano in the development section. There is a short cadenza for the piano by Mozart himself, which pauses in the middle to give some hesitant ‘asides’. The second movement, Adagio, is a slow ‘siciliano’ in the same rhythm as Mozart’s A minor Rondo, K511. Like the Rondo, it is a poignant blend of sadness and graceful dance rhythm. The opening theme is played by the piano alone, as if the pianist is thinking aloud with no notion that there is an orchestra nearby. The syncopated melody line in the right hand weaves gently back and forth across wide intervals, almost like the mediaeval device of ‘hocket’ (‘hiccup’) in which a musical line alternates note by note between different voices. Here, however, the effect is of a sadly wandering treble line, restrained by quiet lilting in the bass. The orchestra replies with a richly scored lament whose long lines make the hesitant phrasing of the piano’s opening all the clearer in retrospect. The central episode in A major brings a lighter mood, but it is not long before the return of the opening theme and the elaboration of the orchestral reply. Against a passage of pizzicato string accompaniment near the end, the piano enlarges upon the wide intervals of the opening theme. Notated very simply by Mozart, the wide intervals used to be played with equal simplicity until scholars suggested that Mozart probably intended them to be filled in with some kind of arpeggio or appropriate decoration. Both versions can work in the right hands. The very end of the movement sees the piano almost stuttering as the orchestra sings a gentle close. It takes nerve to end as simply as Mozart indicates, with the final piano chord no longer than a quaver, but the effect of eloquence suddenly stilled is worth the effort. The opening of the ebullient finale may be an allusion to the three notes which open the first movement, or a speeded-up version of them, with wider intervals. In a mood of high spirits, various cheerful themes are announced and tossed back 54


and forth between piano and orchestra. Eventually the orchestra suggests a quieter, more pensive theme which the piano snatches up and makes the excuse for some virtuoso display. Characteristically, this passage ends with Mozart subsiding cheekily into a little ‘afterthought’ theme which could be one of Papageno the bird-catcher’s good-natured tunes from The Magic Flute. Things get stormy in the next episode in F sharp minor, with the piano forcefully declaiming and the orchestra replying plaintively. But there is also room for a gentle tune played in D major by the clarinets and passed seamlessly back and forth between orchestra and piano in the manner of jazz musicians ‘swapping eights’. Earlier episodes are reprised in the home key, but almost the last word is given to the tootling ‘Papageno’ figure, bouncing onto the stage just before the final curtain to bid us a cheery farewell.

13. Rondo in A minor, K511 Many composers have used the term ‘Rondo’ to denote a lively and energetic final movement, usually in a major key. In this piece, Mozart uses the term Rondo neutrally to mean a piece in which the main theme ‘comes round’ several times, punctuating a series of episodes in contrasting moods and keys. If the title leads us to expect something cheerful, however, we are in for a surprise, because this is probably the most heart-searching and sorrowful of his solo keyboard works. It was written in March 1787, shortly after his opera The Marriage of Figaro had been premiered with huge success in Prague. Mozart, who visited Prague himself in January 1787 and stayed until mid-February, was the talk of the town, enjoying unprecedented acclaim both for his composition and for his piano-playing. Outwardly, there is no reason why he should have felt like writing something as introspective as the A minor Rondo at this time. But he had developed a habit of interspersing cheerful and outgoing works with others of a brooding character, which has led some writers to wonder whether he struggled with feelings of depression. Perhaps his inclination to write a sad piece at a happy time is, however, simply an indication of his extraordinary emotional range, which demanded expression regardless of his outward circumstances. 55


Describing the piece as ‘heart-searching and sorrowful’ may imply that it is to be played very slowly, but this is probably not what Mozart intended; as discussed in relation to K488, ‘Andante’ is a marking that indicates fluency. The modern piano with its more resonant tone tends to encourage slow tempi for many thoughtful pieces, because there is no difficulty in sustaining the tone at slow speeds, but it is helpful to remember that Mozart’s piano had a lighter, drier tone; an excessively slow tempo would emphasise this quality, to the disadvantage of the music. Played fluently, the seriousness of the music acquires a different character, one where the sadness is not overt but instead steals gradually over the listener. In a curious way this can make it more poignant than a deliberately slow and tragic performance. The A minor Rondo has a very complex structure, like a mosaic whose recurring pieces are not symmetrical in the design, yet strike us as being placed with mysterious beauty. The opening theme, with its suggestion of a waltz rhythm in the left hand, has a beguiling lilt, but the melody line is hesitant, venturing upwards in little half-steps before falling back down again. The dotted rhythm of this opening melody reappears later in the contrasting section in A major, halfway through the piece; its character is more serene, but the sense of unity is preserved by the use of the now familiar dotted rhythm. Throughout the piece, there is a seamless ebb and flow between troubled and peaceful states of mind, never starkly juxtaposed but rather flowing and developing from one to another in a way that a modern writer might describe as ‘organic’. Just as we have immersed ourselves in one mood, we realise that the sun has come out to lighten the scene, or that just as we have settled to enjoy the serenity, clouds drift over to cast the landscape into shadow. Melancholy is the prevailing emotion, but even melancholy turns out to have its consoling aspects, and it becomes clear that there can be more pent-up sadness in little fragments of melody than in a page of anguished arpeggios. Passages of dense chromatic movement, such as in the second (F major) episode or the central (A major) section, bubble up out of nowhere, carrying us on the current of their intensity. In works by Mozart of a more extrovert character, such ‘bubbling-up’ passages are intended as virtuoso display and to be enjoyed by the player as such, but here the swirling 56


flourishes are a sign of inner turbulence. Each time the opening Rondo theme in A minor returns it is a little more florid in character, as if it has more to assert on each appearance. The approach of each return is managed with extraordinary subtlety, so that sometimes we feel it is inevitable, whereas at other times its reappearance feels like a magical sleight of hand. The full intricacy of the structure becomes clear if you try to memorise it – it is a very daunting task. Finally, in a Coda which fully displays Mozart’s genius, the bass line wells up from a dark place while we hear the Rondo theme, now rhythmically displaced so that it begins not with a quaver upbeat before the bar line, but halfway through the bar, a variant it maintains until the end. This has the effect of throwing the emphasis onto the keynote (A) which now appears on the main beat, giving an effect of finality. The wave of energy passes from the left hand to the right and rises into the high treble. Under this we hear, for the first time, the theme played by the left hand in the bass. In the final bars of the piece, we hear two fragments of the theme in the treble and high treble, while below, the rippling left-hand figuration underpins an almost Schubertian ‘tenor’ line which curls sadly around A, B flat, A and G sharp like a mist closing in. After so much emotion, the final two pianissimo chords may seem too short and too simply written to sum up what has gone before. With careful placing, they can seem like a gesture of acceptance. I have a friend, a professor of advanced mathematics, who once tried to explain to me what he was doing when he sat with his eyes closed and his head in his hands imagining mathematical structures in numerous dimensions. Although this kind of exercise is beyond me, I feel I have a parallel experience when contemplating the musical structures devised by my favourite composers, among whom Mozart is pre-eminent because of the multi-dimensional beauty of his creations. * Earlier on, when discussing Haydn’s Variations in F minor, I mentioned a possible link between them and Mozart’s Rondo, and here are a few more words on the subject. Mozart and Haydn knew one another socially in Vienna and met to play chamber music; sometimes Haydn played the violin while Mozart played the viola, and sometimes they both played viola, as in Mozart’s string quintets which have two viola parts. Haydn was twenty-three years older than Mozart, but they 57


were united in friendship by a great appreciation of one another’s work, and despite the age difference they called each other ‘Du’, the familiar form of address in German. When Haydn departed for his celebrated visit to London in 1790, he and Mozart had dinner together and Mozart is alleged to have teased Haydn with the suggestion that he would probably soon feel like returning to Vienna: ‘You are no longer young.’ ‘But I am vigorous and in good health!’ replied Haydn (aged fiftynine). At the moment of parting, the mood turned serious. Mozart is supposed to have said to Haydn, ‘We are probably saying our last farewell in this life’, and they both had tears in their eyes. Judging from Mozart’s reference to Haydn’s seniority, we may suppose that Mozart thought it was Haydn who would depart this life first. But in fact it was Mozart who died while Haydn was in London. When the news reached Haydn, he was distraught: ‘For some time I was quite beside myself over his death, and could not believe that Providence should so quickly have called away such an irreplaceable man into the next world.’ On his return to Vienna, Haydn must have been struck anew by Mozart’s absence. Was he thinking of Mozart when he conceived his Variations? There is no direct proof, but several things in the music suggest it. Haydn creates two themes, one in the minor, one in the major. The minor theme features a dotted rhythm, repeated notes and a falling fifth. The major one features four notes rising by a semitone each time. In the same sequence, these two patterns are found in the opening two phrases of Mozart’s A minor Rondo. Is this coincidence? Perhaps it is more a matter of Haydn’s having absorbed the material of Mozart’s composition, which resurfaced in his imagination in a new context. Similarly, just as Mozart intensifies the emotion in the Coda of his Rondo, Haydn creates an extraordinary upsurge of emotion in his, going even further than Mozart does and giving the impression that he is letting us listen in to a painful personal outburst. We know that Haydn at the time of writing the Variations was upset about the death of his friend Marianne von Genzinger, so this is one possible explanation for his mood. Are his variations also an undeclared tribute to Mozart? He never said so in so many words, but of course there are other ways of declaring what you mean, and his music bears witness. 58


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770–1827) 14. Sonata for Piano and Violin in F major, op. 24, ‘Spring’ By the turn of the nineteenth century, the piano had developed greater power and expressive range. There were many competing virtuosi who exploited its possibilities, but Beethoven was the figure who came to dominate the field as both a great pianist and a profound composer. Beethoven’s influence on other composers has proved to be immense and far-reaching. The way he saw himself as an artist, too, changed many musicians’ perception of themselves. The story is well known that at one point in Beethoven’s life, when he was taking part in a court case in an attempt to gain custody of his nephew Karl, he was asked by the court whether he was of noble birth. ‘My nobility is here and here,’ replied Beethoven, striking his head and his heart. This radical and instinctive promotion of the creative artist to a status where spirit and intellect were as important as inherited privileges of ‘birth’ gave courage to later generations of musicians. In this same period, ideas of ‘the sublime’ were developed by English poets such as Wordsworth, the German philosophers Kant and Schopenhauer, and expressed by the painters Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner. To have a sense of ‘the sublime’ was to perceive the grandeur and immensity of Nature, or Time, with delight and appreciation rather than terror. Crossing the Alps had once been considered by sensitive travellers to be an uncivilised encounter with nature in the raw, but in Beethoven’s lifetime such experiences came to be seen as noble and uplifting, a chance to bask in the presence of Infinity. By analogy, certain works of art came to be perceived as possessing sublime qualities and Beethoven’s ‘mountainous’ music was a prime example. With some of Beethoven’s early work, however, we are not so much in the mountains as in the gentle foothills. Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin (the order he gave those instruments on the title pages) are a delightful facet of his output, showing his deep interest in the art of conversation between two instruments he played himself. Beethoven was known primarily as a pianist, but he also played the violin, and in his early twenties he had lessons several times a week from the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (himself only eighteen years old at the 59


time), who later founded the first professional string quartet and led the first performances of many of Beethoven’s quartets. So when Beethoven started to compose for piano and violin, he was in a good position to understand what it felt like to play both instruments. His duo sonatas are notably genial, as if he regarded violin and piano as friends and co-conspirators rather than adversaries or opposites. Inevitably, because of the piano’s ability to play harmony, the piano part is the broad river on which the violin part floats along, but both instruments share the musical honours. Violin and piano swap thematic material, sometimes with the violin leading and sometimes with the piano taking charge. At times the piano is treated as two separate voices, the right hand and the left hand, and we might find the violin in duet with the piano’s bass line, or the pianist’s two hands in counterpoint with one another while the violin supplies the accompaniment. The textures are remarkably transparent, almost Mozartian, and we can always hear exactly who is doing what. The Sonata in F major, op. 24, was written in 1801. Its nickname, ‘Spring’, seems to acknowledge its freshness of outlook, but the name was not given to it by Beethoven. It is the first of his piano and violin sonatas to consist of four rather than three movements, and the extra movement, the Scherzo, is a little gem. At this period, Beethoven was still writing in a late eighteenth-century style influenced by Mozart and Haydn. As we listen, we may feel that it is easy to follow the steps of his musical thought process; in contrast to his later and more compressed style, he takes care to lay the steps out for us. The famous opening theme, first heard on violin, is a melody which descends from on high like a branch with clusters of blossoms gently drooping from it. The second main theme is a bouncy rhythmic figure presented alternately by violin and piano. The difference in character between the two themes presents the players with a challenge, for if the opening theme is taken at a relaxed tempo, the second theme may seem laborious. Conversely, if the second theme is allowed to dictate a sprightly overall tempo, the graceful curls of the first theme may seem rushed. Scholars tell us that in Beethoven’s day it was the custom to be flexible about the tempo, with players naturally speeding up or slowing down if the music seemed to demand it. Modern taste has veered towards finding a unified tempo 60


that works for every theme, but not every piece of music lends itself to this approach and the ‘Spring’ sonata is a good example. In the B flat slow movement it is the piano’s turn to present the main theme, a beautiful melody whose outline seems to share some of the characteristics of the first movement’s opening theme. A truly slow tempo is needed to accommodate the Chopinesque decorative turns and runs without making them seem trivial. After they have each declaimed the theme, piano and violin embark on a closer conversation, breaking up phrases between them. The second ‘verse’ of the theme sees even more flowery decoration and a turn to the minor, which in turn sinks beautifully into the unexpected key of G flat major. In the coda, violin and piano swap phrases which become shorter and shorter, dissolving in quiet oscillations as scraps of the opening theme flutter to the ground. The theme of the Scherzo is subtly derived from the opening theme of the first movement, and itself presages the theme of the finale. Almost the whole Scherzo is quiet, including the ‘Trio’ which mutters along with subdued energy, rising to a few brief bars of forte. The piano has the main Scherzo theme, a rhythmic figure which leaves many of the third beats empty. Then the violin joins in but immediately ‘misunderstands’ the shape of the theme and leaves the first beat blank by mistake, resulting in the two instruments being a beat apart when we expect them to be in unison. The effect is comical in a disconcerting way. The tripping Trio makes it clear that they know exactly how to play together, but the return of the Scherzo brings back the ‘mistake’, a course the poor violin is compelled to pursue to the very end. (I once heard a performance in which the violinist ‘got out’ in such a way that they ‘got in’ and played in rhythmic unison with the piano, an effect which either ruined Beethoven’s joke or made it even funnier, I’m not sure which.) The Rondo finale recalls the mood of Mozart’s leisurely Allegretto movements, in which nothing ever seems hasty. The piano takes the lead with a gentle theme which alludes to the opening theme of the first movement. Piano and violin take turns with eight-bar phrases, then with four-bar phrases, and then break up the phrases between them. After a return of the Rondo theme there is a stormy section in D minor with tricky triplet figures for each instrument, accompanying a 61


passionate syncopated theme. The next time we hear the Rondo theme it is in the ‘wrong’ key of D major, from which it winds back to a reprise in the home key. At the next appearance of the Rondo there is a delicious variant where the piano breaks the theme into skipping triplets with the first of each triplet missing, a moment which recalls the violin’s predicament in the Scherzo. But the violin is not embarrassed, and even caps the effect with its own cheeky dotted-note version of the theme. In great good humour the two instruments weave their way to the end, each trying to outdo the other with virtuosic flourishes (a gambit Beethoven may have admired in Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat, K454).

15. Piano Sonata in F minor, op. 57, ‘Appassionata’ The Sonata in F minor, op. 57, was Beethoven’s own favourite among his piano sonatas, at least until he came to write his ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, op. 106. The F minor sonata has long been one of his most celebrated piano sonatas, famous for its brooding energy and defiant contrasts. The title ‘Appassionata’ was not the composer’s idea; it was bestowed in 1838 by a publisher bringing out a version for piano duet, and the public took to the name. Beethoven wrote the F minor sonata in 1804–5 when he was coming to terms with his deafness. He had recently been given a piano with a compass of five and a half octaves, the lowest note being F, two and a half octaves below middle C. Perhaps this prompted him to write his new sonata in the key of F minor, and to use the very bottom note of his new piano in the first bar (and the last). Beethoven improvised magnificently at the piano, and his piano music must to some extent be an attempt to write down ideas and shapes that came to him in the immediate flow of inspiration. There’s more to it than that, of course: when he worked on a manuscript he expended tremendous effort on developing, enlarging and refining his first ideas, and his written works have a stature that improvisation can hardly match. All the same, when we play his piano music it’s helpful to remember that it links us to Beethoven the inspired improviser. This is easy to imagine with a piece like the ‘Appassionata’ with its air of thoughts being caught on the wing. 62


Beethoven marks the first movement ‘Allegro assai’ (very lively). His quiet opening theme contains long notes linked by passing notes of very short duration. Often the movement is taken too fast for these short notes to be accurately played (they are frequently played as lazy quavers). If the pianist can find a tempo at which the rhythm of these little notes can be crystal clear, then they will more faithfully convey the nervous excitement which dwells within the outwardly controlled phrases. Beethoven exploits contrasts of several kinds in this movement: at the beginning, for example, he springs a harmonic surprise when the opening phrase in F minor is immediately followed by one a semitone higher in the distant key of G flat, as though trying to destabilise us. (This fondness for moving things up or down a semitone to create an otherworldly effect was shared by Schubert.) There are contrasts between sparse keyboard writing and virtuosic passages. There are many examples of what we now think of as ‘typical Beethoven’, such as sudden unpredictable contrasts between loud and soft or vice versa: several examples occur within the first minute of the piece. And there are contrasts between long lyrical lines and bursts of energetic passagework from which melody has been burned away. All of this creates an impression of someone driven by turbulent inner forces to express volatile emotions. Some of the writing – for example the fortissimo chords at the ‘Più Allegro’ near the end – is very difficult to play accurately and at the prescribed speed unless you have a big hand. Debate will always continue about whether Beethoven imagined a pristine performance of such passages, or whether the sense of barely controlled hysteria is part of his design. Undoubtedly, conveying a sense of pent-up energy is more important than clinical accuracy, but splashing around will do nothing to endear you to the listener, so it is important to practise slowly until your hands feel secure enough to reach cleanly for the chords even amid the excitement. The ‘Andante con moto’ is a set of variations. Its dignified theme is a choralelike procession of chords not openly amounting to a melody; Beethoven famously used this gambit a few years later in the slow movement of his Seventh Symphony. Here and there he again includes some dotted notes of very short duration. Because of them, pianists often take this movement too slowly in order to avoid the unwanted impression of ‘skipping’ at these points, but as the prevailing 63


dynamic is ‘piano e dolce’ (soft and gentle) it is possible to aim at a way of playing the short notes of chords lightly and punctually without distorting the musical line. In each variation the decoration gets faster and the theme slowly rises from the tenor register into the high treble, like a hot-air balloon taking to the sky. A quiet reminder of the original theme is brutally interrupted by a sinister diminished chord, at once repeated fortissimo an octave higher and leading straight into the final movement. Beethoven has conceived this moment with great care, as we see from the trouble he takes to notate the loud chord ‘arpeggio’ (like a harp) in the left hand and ‘secco’ (dry) in the right, an effect which is like a sudden shout or cry. Beethoven’s piano pupil Ferdinand Ries, who left valuable recollections of his friendship with Beethoven, has described how the last movement of the ‘Appassionata’ came into being. They had been for a walk: . . . in which we went so far astray that we did not get back to Döbling, where Beethoven lived, until nearly 8 o’clock. He had been all the time humming and sometimes howling, without singing any definite notes. In answer to my question what it was he said, ‘A theme for the last movement of the sonata has occurred to me.’ When we entered the room he ran to the pianoforte without taking off his hat. I took a seat in the corner and he soon forgot all about me. Now he stormed for at least an hour with the beautiful finale of the sonata. Finally he got up, was surprised still to see me and said: ‘I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some more work.’

It is interesting that Ries described the gestation of the finale as ‘humming and sometimes howling, without singing any definite notes’, for it does have something of this feeling, muttering and swirling, with agitated rhythmic fragments sprinkled through the texture, like birds calling in a forest. It’s pleasing to imagine that we might be getting to overhear seven or eight minutes of the hour that he spent ‘storming’ at the piano (still wearing his hat). The first section is not repeated but, unusually, he tells us to repeat the development section. This instruction is not always followed, because the movement is long and the pianist’s stamina may 64


already be under pressure (let’s not forget that the mechanism of the modern piano is heavier and more tiring to play than Beethoven’s piano). One of the hardest things for the player to convey is the sense of friction resulting from subterranean energy under iron control. The fast passagework is often marked piano or pianissimo; the little two-note ‘alarm calls’ we hear now in the bass, now in the treble, are difficult to play in correct rhythm with the necessary feeling of coiled energy. The mood is held back until the final page, Presto, where Beethoven abandons himself to a demonic stamping dance and a grim dash to the finish. It is amazing to think that Beethoven was writing such music while his old composition teacher Joseph Haydn was still Kapellmeister at the Esterházy palace. In its marriage of virtuosity with emotional power, Beethoven’s F minor sonata was extending the boundaries of piano music.

16. Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, op. 58 Beethoven’s fourth and fifth piano concertos, the G major, op. 58, and the E flat ‘Emperor’, op. 73, are the most celebrated of his five splendid piano concertos. Numbers 4 and 5 are very different in character, a tribute to Beethoven’s ability to ‘be himself ’ in a huge variety of styles. The E flat concerto is heroic, virtuosic and muscular, rather like the piano part of Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ piano trio. By contrast the G major concerto is serene and thoughtful, the soloist enjoying dialogue and partnership with the orchestra rather than engaging them in combat. G major was a key which seemed to find Beethoven in genial mood: the piano trio in G, op. 1 no. 2, the piano sonata, op. 31 no. 1, the piano and violin sonata, op. 96, for example. In his G major concerto the piano writing is often more like a line drawing than an oil painting, sparingly scored without massive blocks of chords. Interestingly, the pianist spends a lot of time playing in the high treble register, as though Beethoven had planned to leave the bass registers to the orchestra, with the pianist playing the part of a silver-tongued poet. The premiere of the Piano Concerto no. 4 in the Theater an der Wien just before Christmas in 1808 was Beethoven’s last public appearance as a piano 65


soloist with orchestra. The programme was colossal and the concert lasted for over four hours; as well as the premieres of the G major concerto and the Choral Fantasy for piano and orchestra (both with Beethoven as soloist), there were also the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, with Beethoven supervising the disgruntled orchestra. Rehearsal time had been inadequate, and in Viennese winter weather the theatre was freezing cold. Naturally these two symphonies were the outstanding events of the evening and the G major piano concerto, though admired by critics at the time, was quietly forgotten. It was rescued some twenty years later by Felix Mendelssohn, who performed it himself to great acclaim and established it as an important piece of the repertoire. There are many aspects of the G major concerto which make one imagine Beethoven improvising at the piano. The character of the piece is clear at the very beginning, where the pianist alone pronounces the opening theme, its delicate repeated chords perhaps evoking speech rather than song. The note B, the third of a simple G major chord, begins the melody line. And now comes one of Beethoven’s startling moves: the orchestra quietly takes up the same theme, still with B as the first note, but harmonises it quite differently, in the key of B major instead of G. The effect is of something familiar removed suddenly to a great distance, from which it works itself back to the home key via an extensive passage for the orchestra alone. When the soloist enters again it is not with a flourish but with a gentle continuation of what the orchestra has been saying. It is, in fact, the orchestra which announces most of the principal themes in the movement, the piano happy to supply comments, enhancements and decorative arpeggios of filigree beauty. There are only one or two moments where the piano really asserts itself: first, the reprise of the opening theme, which begins thunderously but can only sustain the heroic mode for a few bars before gracefully subsiding. Second, Beethoven’s own long and intense cadenza, the one still most often performed, which amplifies the feeling that we are hearing a written-out version of the composer improvising. For some minutes it feels as if the pianist has forgotten the orchestra is there, but at the end of the cadenza the pianist winds down to a long quiet trill, under cover of which the orchestra creeps in with a beautiful extension of the musical thought. 66


The slow movement is another of Beethoven’s wonderful innovations: a series of exchanges between a loud, grumpy orchestra and a quiet, eloquent piano determined to calm things down. An early biographer of Beethoven described it as ‘Orpheus trying to calm the Furies on his journey to the underworld’. Beethoven tells the pianist to use the ‘una corda’ pedal, which we know as the soft pedal; on Beethoven’s piano this meant that each hammer only struck one string, creating a truly delicate effect. Each time the orchestra, moving in rhythmic unison, speaks its mind the piano replies with long, conciliatory lines of melody. The length of the exchanges gets shorter; the pace of the conversation speeds up and the pitch of the piano part rises. About halfway through the movement there is a subtle exchange of roles. After a particularly poignant phrase in the piano, the orchestra starts to simmer down and subside into muttering. In parallel, the piano becomes impassioned and gradually works itself up into a short but despairing cadenza. The orchestra is completely subdued by this; when it next enters, it is pianississimo, very, very quiet. Even the piano seems to have exhausted itself, and makes only two more brief but telling comments: a simple three-chord phrase, and a final quiet arpeggio of benediction. The Rondo opens with another of the radical harmonic twists Beethoven used on the opening page of the concerto. The slow movement ends in E minor, and E is the last note we hear. The Rondo tune starts with that same E, but the bass has dropped from E to C: the E has become the third of a C major chord, evoking an instant change of scene. (In fact, C major turns out to be a stepping stone en route to the home key of G major, which returns soon after.) The merry theme is presented quietly and gets a quiet reply, but after a couple more exchanges the orchestra bursts out with a joyful fortissimo statement of the theme, a brilliant moment of energy release. Once again the orchestra leads with the presentation of new themes and figures, the piano replying with more elaborate versions of them. Twice when leading up to the return of the Rondo there are long downand-up virtuoso scales with which the piano guides us back to the familiar theme; the conductor must be poised to bring the orchestra in at the perfect moment to overlap the pianist’s final note with the first note of the orchestral theme. It’s a moment which often comes adrift in performance and makes one wonder 67


whether Beethoven wrote it as a sort of dare. After a brief piano cadenza the movement ends in high spirits, but even here it is notable that the mood is goodnatured and the piano writing elegant rather than exhibitionist.

17. Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, op. 73, ‘Emperor’ Even today, if you asked someone to name a famous piano concerto, they would probably say Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’. Beethoven’s legendarily bad temper would have been roused if he knew that we are still calling his fifth piano concerto ‘The Emperor’. He supported the ideals of the French Revolution and had intended to dedicate his third symphony, ‘Eroica’, to Napoleon Bonaparte, the military leader who rose to prominence during the Revolution. But in 1804 when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven was so upset at this betrayal of progressive ideals that he scratched out Napoleon’s name on the cover of the ‘Eroica’ symphony. He reworded the dedication: ‘to celebrate the memory of a great man’. Why then is the fifth piano concerto, written in 1809, known as the ‘Emperor’, at least in English-speaking countries? It seems to have been the idea of the German pianist Johann Baptist Cramer, who may have been responding to its majestic, quasi-military character with a shrewd marketing suggestion (Cramer also owned a publishing firm in London). It worked: the handy nickname ‘Emperor’ is probably one important reason why the Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat, op. 73, is the best known of Beethoven’s concertos. In 1809, Vienna was under invasion from Napoleon’s forces. Beethoven was living in lodgings close to the city wall, and when the noise of artillery got too loud he fled to his brother’s house and continued to compose, holding pillows over his ears to protect his limited hearing. ‘What a disturbing, wild life around me!’ he wrote. ‘Nothing but drums, cannon, men, misery of all sorts.’ In those circumstances it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes which came to him for his fifth piano concerto were of a proud, martial kind. The E flat concerto is the first of the ‘barnstorming’ piano concertos unleashed during the Romantic era. It is very different to its predecessor, no. 4 in G major, which re-imagines the roles of pianist and orchestra in a number of ways and whose quiet, gentle opening on unaccom68


panied piano was a revelation to audiences. The fifth concerto takes the opposite approach. The pianist is cast in the role of a great actor whose opening perorations thrill the audience with their power and eloquence. That the soloist is able to play this role is partly due to the developing mechanism of the piano itself, which had reached the point where the instrument could project a large amount of volume. Beethoven was the first composer to take full advantage of the enhanced range of piano tone. Because of the fifth concerto’s assertive and muscular character, it has traditionally been championed by men; even today, lists of recommended recordings are either entirely of male pianists or dominated by them. Beethoven was not the soloist at the first performance – his increasing deafness made it impossible. Instead, his patron and friend Archduke Rudolph played the piano part at a private performance in 1811, and the soloist at the first public performance in Leipzig was the twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schneider. The Leipzig audience and critics were delighted. ‘It is without doubt one of the most original, imaginative and effective but also one of the most difficult of existing concertos’, wrote the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. The first Vienna performance was given in 1812 by Carl Czerny, composer of the well-known piano studies, who was not only Beethoven’s pupil but also a lifelong friend and champion of his music. In his On the proper performance of all Beethoven’s works for the piano, Czerny writes that ‘It is most advisable to conduct the orchestra from a separate copy of the pianoforte part, as the mode of performance cannot be gathered from the part belonging to the violin.’ This comment tells us several things: firstly, that it was the custom for the leader of the orchestra (a violinist) to direct the performance using only his violin part as a guide, no other conductor being present; secondly, that a conductor might have worked from a copy of the piano part (not a full score); and thirdly, that full orchestral scores were not yet routinely available. Any conductor attempting to direct the orchestra from a single part, even the piano part, would have been at a serious disadvantage because they would not have known who was playing what in the orchestra. Naturally a conscientious conductor could discover it by looking and listening, but it would have taken time, probably more time than rehearsals allowed for. 69


One of Beethoven’s achievements in this concerto is to write for the orchestra so that when playing alone, for example in the long ‘tutti’ exposition of the main themes near the beginning, it sounds grand and powerful, but when in dialogue with the soloist it is used with delicacy, not drowning the piano. In a good performance, these passages of give and take between piano and orchestra seem like the meeting of remarkably equal forces, a tribute to Beethoven’s sensitive scoring. Yet when the piano falls silent, the power of the orchestra is on thrilling display. The concerto has the reputation of being huge, loud and bombastic, but this is only partly true: in fact, a glance at the score will show how often Beethoven tells the pianist to play ‘dolce’ (gently), ‘leggiermente’ (lightly) and pianissimo. Even the dramatic moment near the end of the first movement where the orchestra hands over to the pianist, as if expecting them to play a mighty cadenza, is carefully controlled; Beethoven tells the soloist ‘Don’t play a cadenza, but go on immediately with the following.’ ‘The following’ is essentially a passage of musing on the second theme, played quietly and lightly. Beethoven reserves the barnstorming for the moment when the orchestra reprises the first theme and the piano exultantly decorates it with fiery arpeggios. The heart of the work is the slow movement, with its hushed and prayerful orchestral opening. Czerny tells us that Beethoven had in mind ‘the religious songs of devout pilgrims’. The contemplative atmosphere is like those of some of Beethoven’s most beautiful slow movements in his duo sonatas, for example the Sonata for Piano and Violin in C minor, op. 30 no. 2, or more particularly the Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, op. 96. Here at last in the E flat concerto the soloist is allowed to show the lyrical quality which so distinguishes the piano writing in the previous concerto. Elaborating on the orchestral theme, the piano takes flight in a gentle fantasia, eventually decorating the theme with quiet arpeggios when the orchestra reprises it. At the end of the movement is a striking moment: having come to a close in the key of B, with a long-held bass note B, the whole thing slips down a semitone to B flat (the dominant of the home key, E flat). Here, the piano quietly explores a few rising chords, as if planning a new excursion. But suddenly the mood changes and the final Rondo bursts upon us in E flat major. 70


The rising chords are transformed into the Rondo theme, a kind of peasant dance with defiant, almost clumsy offbeat accents. Once more the soloist is cast in the role of the warrior-hero, demonstrating their prowess in a series of virtuoso episodes linked by statements of the Rondo theme in various keys. The mood is spacious, though it is possible to tire of the ‘kicking’ theme before it has finished inspecting all its outlying territory. Towards the end, the dance-like element wins out over the boisterous one. The orchestra falls silent while, in an unusual duet, the timpanist quietly beats out the dotted rhythm of the dance and the piano bids us farewell with a series of gently sinking chromatic chords. The tempo slows and reaches Adagio. What next? Suddenly the pianist seems to realise that the finishing line is in sight, and makes a determined sprint for it, cheered on by the full orchestra.

18. Piano Trio in B flat major, op. 97, ‘Archduke’ Beethoven’s B flat Piano Trio, op. 97 (for piano, violin and cello), is one of his most majestic works, with a heroic piano part fully the equal of those in his piano concertos. Sometimes chamber music is thought to be domestic music on a small or intimate scale, but the B flat Trio shatters that notion. Its instrumental demands put it beyond the reach of all but the most advanced amateur players, and tax the stamina of professionals. It is intriguing to consider why Beethoven wrote such a grand and ambitious work for just three people to play. Wouldn’t it have been better as a symphony, with seventy or eighty musicians combining their forces to produce an appropriately enormous sound? Actually, the friction between a small group of players and the enormous scale of the music is an important part of its impact. The sight and sound of three people, just one on each part, working hard to deliver one of Beethoven’s most masterly compositions cannot help but be impressive. The Trio was written in 1810–11 and got its nickname from its dedicatee, the Austrian Emperor’s youngest son Archduke Rudolph, a patron of Beethoven’s and the only person he ever took on as a composition pupil. Rudolph was a good pianist to whom Beethoven dedicated several important works (e.g. the fourth 71


and fifth piano concertos, the Triple Concerto), but it is not known whether Rudolph attempted the fearsome piano part of ‘his’ Trio. The composer himself played the piano (with the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and cellist Joseph Linke) in its first performance at a hotel in Vienna in 1814, but his deafness made it an ordeal. The composer Louis Spohr was in the audience and reported: ‘On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate.’ Despite this inauspicious premiere, the piece itself was greatly admired and has gone on to become one of the pinnacles not only of the trio repertoire but of Beethoven’s whole output. Speaking from personal experience I can say that even when one knows the trio well, preparing to play it remains a challenge akin, I imagine, to what an athlete or cyclist might feel when training for a mountain race. Beethoven asks a lot of all three players but especially of the pianist, who is playing more or less continuously for forty minutes, often at full stretch. One needs to learn to pace oneself, for some of the severest demands come near the end. Not only does the pianist need physical stamina, they must also have an intellectual grasp of the music’s architecture in order to convey it to the listener. Just playing the notes on the page, arduous though that may be, is not enough: the musicians must dive into Beethoven’s imagination so that the outline of the composition emerges from its torrents of notes. It’s debatable how important it is for the listener to know that certain themes and elements of themes are used throughout, forming a kind of DNA of the composition. For example, the opening section of the first movement contains three such elements: (a) the four-note melody in the first bar; (b) the six-note rising scale which begins with the dotted notes at the end of bar two; and (c) the ‘decorative’ turn played by the strings when they enter. A little later comes (d) the lightly bouncing second theme in G major, with its characteristic repeated notes. These four elements are constantly used throughout the four movements. Element (a) drives a large part of the development in the first movement. The 72


theme of the second movement is a recollection of element (b), the rising scale. The theme of the slow movement, which appears delightfully new, is probably an allusion both to (c) and (d). The theme of the finale is a deliberately distorted version of (b). There are hundreds of instances of the principal elements being pressed into service as secondary elements in an ongoing process of variation. It is entirely possible to love the piece without ever having noticed that musical cells are used as building blocks throughout. But to be aware of the cross-references adds a new dimension to our appreciation, because we are better able to understand that Beethoven’s genius lies not just in the invention of one heart-stirring tune after another, but in his profound grasp of how atoms and molecules of musical material can be arranged and combined to build intricate structures. The four movements are like the acts in a tremendous play. In the first movement, dignified and expansive, the piano has the task of introducing most of the important material before it is taken up and discussed amongst all three instruments. The opening theme is ruthlessly taken apart in the development section and at some moments reduced to rhythmic pulsation. Just before the reprise there’s a nerve-racking moment for the pianist when, at the end of a long crescendo in staccato quavers, the violin and cello drop away, leaving the pianist to make the final fortissimo ascent to the summit alone. Characteristically, Beethoven follows this moment with an immediate change of tone and mood: from declamatory B flat chords he switches to soft, mysterious chromatic fragments which dissolve into pianissimo trills on all three instruments, almost in the manner of a cinematic ‘fade’ (a technique he first used at the equivalent moment in the first movement of his Sonata for Piano and Violin, op. 24, ‘Spring’). From these quiet trills, the opening theme emerges once more, not triumphantly (that is reserved for the very end of the movement) but innocently, as though awaking from a strange dream. In the second movement, an extended scherzo, it is the turn of the strings to introduce a theme which develops into a genial dance reminiscent of an Austrian Ländler. We are familiar with the scherzo-and-trio format, in which the main body of the movement is contrasted with a (usually) more relaxed section; here, Beethoven turns the tables by making the ‘trio’ section the most dramatic part of the movement. It is introduced in five flats and in sinister style by the cello, 73


creeping along a chromatic rising line as if moving towards a strange quiet fugue. But suddenly there is another of Beethoven’s volatile changes of mood as the chromatic line heaves itself up to deliver a grand, mock-heroic waltz that is repeated in various keys before finding its way back to the reprise. The slow movement is a set of variations on one of Beethoven’s loveliest themes, again given first to the piano, who presents it quietly in the middle register of the keyboard. Across the movement there is a gradual increase in the complexity of the decoration of the theme and in the intricacy of its internal pulse. The piano takes charge of this rhythmic process, wreathing the theme in more and more elaborate and graceful accompaniment. As the texture becomes denser and the pulsation more hypnotic, we are lulled into an extraordinary meditative, indeed mesmerised, state. Without bringing the slow movement to a conclusion, Beethoven has the strings bid it farewell over gently pulsing piano triplets with a graceful ‘turning’ figure which, suddenly and brusquely, he transforms into the defiant theme of the fourth movement, wrenching the music back into B flat. The finale’s character is that of an awkward yet powerful dance, kicking and stamping, with the hint of a twinkle in its eye. As the movement develops there is fiendishly difficult writing for all three instruments, for example the lengthy passage requiring the pianist to play fast oscillating ‘tremolo’ chords pianissimo while the strings menacingly whisper the opening theme. In the final Presto and Più Presto, Beethoven again makes instrumental demands that feel nearly impossible to achieve without losing control, a predicament he would probably have dismissed just as he rebuffed a complaint of that kind from Schuppanzigh: ‘Do you think I worry about your wretched fiddle when the spirit speaks to me?’

19. Piano Sonata in A flat major, op. 110 Like other late works of Beethoven, this sonata has a feeling of compression about it, as though the composer had neither the time nor the patience to explain anything at great length for our benefit. Very little is allowed to unfold at leisure; there is often a sense of transitions between one section and another being made quite curtly and swiftly, as if the composer does not really care whether we are following 74


or not, and is anxious to move on because of the pressure of ideas. Its aura of being ‘private music’ has, of course, inspired many people to immerse themselves in it in the hope of following Beethoven’s train of thought and entering his world. The autograph score of the A flat sonata, op. 110, is dated ‘25 December 1821’, evoking the poignant image of Beethoven working alone on Christmas Day. By this date he had been deaf for five years and had long since given up playing the piano in public. He still composed at the piano at home in Vienna, but sometimes pounded on the keys in frustration because he could not hear himself play. He was said to have experimented with some kind of rod which allowed him to hear vibrations through bone conduction if he bit down on one end of the rod while pressing the other end against the soundboard. Clearly, however, most of the sounds had to be heard in his imagination. During this period Beethoven, who had never been in the habit of attending church, turned to thoughts of religion. His notebooks of the time are full of prayers and theological commentary. Alongside the A flat sonata he was also composing his Missa Solemnis, his solemn mass. In fact, sketches for this sonata were found among the manuscript pages of the Missa Solemnis, and arguably the sonata’s opening bars are linked to the opening of the Mass. The music is abstract and has no need of association with words to work its effect, but it is interesting to note that the first ten bars of the sonata could be sung to the opening words of the mass: ‘Kyrie Eleison . . . Christe Eleison’ (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy). After the main theme is heard, arpeggios ripple from treble to bass and back again. These arpeggios are a feature of the whole sonata and seem to saturate the keyboard with sound and energy. Is it perhaps like an artist covering the page with cross-hatching? Throughout the sonata there are countless examples of Beethoven reaching into the high treble, as though the upper register of the keyboard is a goal for him with some emotional meaning. In his middle period, when he first became seriously deaf, he seemed to prefer writing for lower registers of the piano which he could hear better. In later years, despite his deafness, he returned to writing in very high registers of the piano. Although he couldn’t hear them, his imagination demanded them and these upper regions may have had some spiritual association for him, like angelic music. 75


The second movement, Allegro molto, is at first glance a rough and earthy scherzo, with a lot of stamping in the bass, often off the beat (particularly in the middle section). It is written in plain rhythms of crotchets and quavers as though in deliberate contrast to the sinuous lines of the first movement – and, as it turns out, to the last movement also. At first the character of the second movement seems brusque and defiant, an unbeautiful peasant dance with alternating soft and loud phrases. But all is not as it seems. The theme of the first four bars will later reappear, completely transformed, as the lament of the third movement, ‘Arioso dolente’. The third movement is the heart of the work and has a powerful structure of its own, with alternating episodes of sorrowful lament and stately fugue. In performance it often seems like a theatrical scene unfolding at different distances, one close and personal, one far away and impersonal, like a study of the movement of the stars. The Adagio opens with a short passage giving a strong impression of condensing a long modulation into a few bars. The Recitativo imitates a solo singer as we might hear them in a church oratorio. What is the meaning of the mysterious repeated A’s, marked Adagio, played by the right hand? They seem to suggest words, though they also conjure up a vision of Beethoven pounding a single note in the effort to hear it. With a few concise chords we move into the ‘Arioso dolente’ or, as Beethoven translated it, ‘Klagender Gesang’ (song of complaint). This piercingly sad lament is based on the aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (It is fulfilled) from Bach’s St John Passion, which Beethoven had studied in preparation for writing his own Missa Solemnis. The same theme, we may gradually realise, was used for the earthy stamping dance of the Scherzo, a startling example not only of thematic transformation but of character transformation too. The influence of Bach becomes even clearer in the Fugue, a complete change of mood from personal and despairing to peaceful and organised. The theme of the first fugue, in the home key of A flat, seems familiar; in fact it is a distillation of the opening theme of the first movement. In retrospect, the opening movement may seem to have been a foreshadowing of, and preparation for, this moment. After the first fugue, the Arioso returns in the key of G minor, marked ‘Ermattet’ 76


(exhausted), its theme broken into effortful fragments. The fragmentation continues in rhythmic as well as melodic terms, leaving only a chain of mysterious offbeat chords in G major (here the pianist must consider whether it is possible to make the listener understand that the chords are off the beat, for the sense of pulse has become so fragile that it is difficult to define where the beats are). There follows a second fugue which begins in G with the fugue theme turned upside down. Is this a joke, an example of Beethoven mocking his own seriousness? Or is it perhaps another answer to the lament, given from a different angle? In the second fugue, the theme undergoes various translations of speed. Sometimes we hear it at different speeds simultaneously, and we scarcely have time to grasp that the little chattering descant figures are speeded-up fragments of the fugue theme. By now, the theme has turned itself the right way up again, and has found its way back to A flat. With new confidence, it works its way from low bass to high treble, reaching a triumphant ending in the home key. But the effect is tantalising, because the sense of ultimate resolution is only achieved at the last minute. After reaching the climax the music breaks off with a precisely notated final crotchet chord and no pause; the quaver rest after the chord confirms that there is to be no prolongation. The sudden silence which follows the final chord seems to come like a punch in the chest. The sound stops, but the emotional momentum hurtles on.

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828) 20. Piano Quintet in A major, D667, ‘Trout’ Schubert, unlike Beethoven, was not a great virtuoso at the piano, and in his lifetime had a limited reputation, principally as a composer of songs and dances. Some of his most powerful works of piano and chamber music were not published until after his death. They built on the daring innovations of Beethoven, but with a strong lyrical drive that is entirely Schubert’s own. Schubert had the reputation of being a sociable and modest person with an effortless talent, but his music contains some of the most piercing insights any composer has found a way to write down. 77


Schubert’s ‘Trout’ quintet is one of the most popular pieces in the chamber music repertoire. It shows a different side of Schubert from the searching, visionary works of his later years; this is genial domestic music from the plump young man known to his friends as ‘Schwammerl’ (Little Mushroom). In 1819 the twenty-two-year-old Schubert was spending a summer holiday with his friend, the singer Johann Michael Vogl, in the ‘inconceivably lovely’ countryside around Steyr in Upper Austria. In Steyr there lived a wealthy patron of the arts, Sylvester Paumgartner, an amateur cellist who held musical evenings in his home on the town square. Paumgartner loved Schubert’s song, ‘Die Forelle’ (The Trout), and asked the composer to write him a chamber work incorporating a set of variations on the song. He requested that the new piece should have the same instrumentation as Hummel’s piano quintet arrangement of his own Septet, op. 74. Hummel’s quintet arrangement had the unusual scoring of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass – a sort of glorified piano quartet, its sonority enriched by a double bass (presumably Paumgartner’s friends represented just such a group of players). Schubert agreed and produced a work whose good nature and endless supply of delightful tunes has made it, as Alfred Einstein said, ‘music we cannot help but love’. Schubert’s solution to the question of how to work his ‘Trout’ song into a piano quintet is ingenious. We don’t hear the song until the fourth movement, but ‘fishy’ motifs swim around us from the start, from the upward-leaping arpeggio with which the piano launches the first movement to the bouncy dotted rhythms and rippling piano figurations of the second theme and of the slow movement. Dotted-note motifs and purling triplets abound in the fifth movement’s piano part, evoking fish leaping and darting through the water. Having boosted the bass sonority with two deep-voiced instruments, cello and double bass, Schubert creates balance by writing for the piano in a higher register than usual, treating the piano part almost like the upper half of a piano duet where, because the two players are sharing the same keyboard, the pianist sitting on the right spends most of their time playing in the treble region, quite often playing in octaves to reinforce the carrying power of the high notes. This scoring gives ‘The Trout’ a special sonority, light and transparent. In this respect 78


Schubert outdoes his model, Hummel’s quintet, which treats the piano part like a concerto, glittering runs and arpeggios flying hither and thither while the other players keep a lower profile. One can’t help imagining that Schubert heard a performance of it and realised that there was something more subtle to be done with the same instruments. As soon as the first movement opens, we are made aware of Schubert’s genius for melody. An important element is the way he colours those melodies by dipping in and out of adventurously distant keys. Right near the start we hear one such change of harmony after the piano’s third upward arpeggio, where instead of landing on a bass note A as it does the preceding times, the double bass suddenly takes over the lowest line with a delightfully unexpected drop to F. A similar shift is heard at the end of the first half as the development begins. Subtlety of harmony is also an important element in the slow movement. Schubert’s passagework moves us step by gentle step through a succession of keys which show the finest ear for gradations of harmony. We are carried forward on the long, long lines of his melodies while underneath them the harmonic ground shifts and settles gently without disturbing our concentration. Schubert has been mildly rebuked for taking an easy way out in structuring this movement. The first half comes to a peaceful close in G major; the second half merely shifts the music up a semitone into A flat and restates all the same material. So the second half is a virtual copy of the first, employing simple key changes to give the illusion of new material. But the quality of Schubert’s invention is so enchanting that only a pedant could possibly complain at hearing everything a second time round. The Scherzo and Trio is the shortest movement, often played as an encore. It’s a romp in lightning-fast triple time requiring some extremely nimble string playing. Schubert doesn’t mark any change of tempo for the more relaxed Trio, but Viennese colleagues have assured me that it would have been customary in Schubert’s day to adopt a slower tempo here. In a sense, the fourth movement, the Variations on ‘Die Forelle’, is the heart of the work. It is probably the first time that Schubert used a song of his own as the basis for an instrumental piece: later examples include his ‘Death and the Maiden’ string quartet, his ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy for piano, and his three-movement Fantasy 79


for piano and violin, whose slow movement quotes his song, ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’. In the ‘Trout’ we first hear the song (its rhythm slightly spiced up with a few dotted notes that aren’t in the original) played by the strings alone, quietly and almost sadly as though pretending that it is nothing to do with chasing and catching. Rippling figures start up in the first variation, with the piano singing the theme in high octaves. Next, the violin decorates the theme with virtuosic arpeggios. In the third variation the piano takes a leaf out of Hummel’s book and bursts forth in exuberant concerto-style demisemiquavers. This inspires the strings to join in with energetic demonstrations of their own in the fourth variation. Variation five opens with another of those melting changes of key, this time from D minor to B flat. The cello is the soloist of this lyrical variation, which moves dreamily through gentle shifts of harmony with rippling viola figures and ‘water droplet’ chords from the piano. (The cello part must have proved quite demanding for an amateur cellist like Paumgartner.) Just as we are sinking into reverie, the final Allegretto bounces in with the ‘Trout’ song in its original good-humoured form, with the playful ‘leaping fish’ motif on the piano. Violin and cello swap bits of the song between them, with the cello finally taking over the leaping motif for a couple of bars before the end. The genial last movement opens with a ‘call to attention’, a long E played in octaves by piano, viola and cello. (Schubert repeats this device at the start of the last movement of his final piano sonata, in B flat, D960.) Although much of the finale is in a brisk, almost toe-tapping rhythm Schubert characteristically finds space to turn aside for a moment here and there, as if he feels a change in the air and looks up to see clouds passing across the sun. In performance, the midpoint of the finale is a tricky moment, for the first half ends decisively and the audience often bursts into applause, only to find that the musicians are ploughing on. (In my experience, a bit of body language is helpful at this point to indicate that the tale is not yet ended.) As in the slow movement, Schubert uses the simple device of making the second half of the movement almost identical to the first half, apart from its keys. The second half simply shifts up a fifth and restates the material of the first half, rather as if the trout is being flipped over and grilled on the other side. In the hands 80


of a less imaginative composer, this simple repetition would be disappointing. But, as in the slow movement, the quality of Schubert’s musical invention is such that it is a delight to hear everything again. The subtle shifts of mood, from cheerful to wistful, pass by as before, and even close to the end there is a touch of melancholy in the piano’s farewell, as though it is sad that the summer is over.

21. Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, D929 Schubert’s Trio in E flat was written in late 1827. It was described by the composer Robert Schumann, a great champion of Schubert’s late works, as ‘spirited, masculine and dramatic’ in contrast to Schubert’s B flat Trio (written in the same year) which Schumann found to be ‘passive, lyrical, feminine’. Today we might resist his masculine-feminine characterisation, commonplace at the time, but there is no doubt that the two trios are surprisingly different. The blissfully tuneful B flat trio has always been more popular, but the E flat trio is arguably the more visionary. Beethoven’s late trios had enlarged the piano trio’s territory well beyond its usual domestic habitat. His ‘Archduke’ trio, op. 97, in particular re-imagined the piano trio almost as a mini-symphony. ‘After Beethoven, who can dare to do anything more?’ Schubert wondered when the great man died. The following year, it seems that Schubert felt ready to answer the question himself. In the final year of his life, he composed an astonishing range of ambitious and far-seeing works, none more so than his E flat trio. It takes around fifty minutes to perform and easily matches the ‘Archduke’ not only in its technical demands, but in the emotional commitment needed from the players to bring its enormous cast of characters alive. It is touching to learn that the first performance of Schubert’s E flat trio was given at a private party with the same string players who gave the premiere of Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’: violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and cellist Joseph Linke, who would surely have been amazed to know that they had christened two trios still considered as pinnacles of the trio repertoire. Why did Schubert write in a style which put his new pieces beyond the reach of most instrumentalists, amateur or professional? Did he not realise he was doing so, or did he not consider it important? Was he writing with an eye on the future? 81


Even today the prospect of performing the E flat trio is daunting; in many years of concert-going I don’t think I have ever heard an amateur group perform it, and even professional performances have been rare. Many of Schubert’s late works give the impression that he was responding to an idealistic and imaginative imperative he could not ignore. Being considered worthy to be Beethoven’s successor was probably part of it, but one often feels that Schubert was listening to otherworldly voices. The first movement begins with a brusque, austere theme which seems almost military despite being in triple time (more commonly associated with dance music). After this theme, we hear the first melodic figure on the cello, and this turns out to be hugely important, because it is the seed from which important motifs and themes develop. The second main theme is in the unexpected key of B minor, possibly a recollection on Schubert’s part of the Menuetto movement in his G major piano sonata, D894, of 1826. This is the first use of a theme which relies on repeated notes, and gradually we discover that they are scattered throughout the work, bringing a distinctively delicate and almost tentative character, with a hint of distant drumming. The development section sees enormous blocks of material transposed into distant keys, each time heaving themselves up from a pianissimo beginning to a fortissimo climax. At the end of the reprise, we arrive at what seems to be the fiery conclusion (virtuoso scale passages for the piano), but typically this moment of affirmation lapses almost immediately into a mood of hesitancy as the delicate repeated-note theme is allowed the last word. After such a big movement it comes as a surprise that Schubert notates the quiet final bars precisely and unsentimentally, as if he is merely noting that this is the end of chapter one. The slow movement is the best-known part of the Trio and has been used in a number of films. Allegedly its theme was inspired by a Swedish song, Se solen sjunker (The sun sinks), which Schubert heard sung at a social gathering. Certainly he has borrowed some small melodic fragments from the song, notably a striking bit in the middle where the singer twice sings ‘Farewell!’ over the two notes of a descending octave, echoed in the accompaniment. Schubert includes this in his trio, along with the bars which follow in the song. Apart from this, however, 82


Schubert’s version far outstrips the original. For a start, he has the inspired idea of introducing an accented dotted rhythm on the last quaver of the bar in the piano part at the beginning. This gives to the trudging chords of the accompaniment a strange little kick which, for some reason, adds to rather than subtracts from the feeling of sadness. In parallel with composing this trio, Schubert was working on his song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) and a similar sense of loneliness pervades his instrumental writing. The second theme of the slow movement is a gently lilting tune in E flat major which refers to the ‘farewell’ motif. It is developed into a grand fortissimo climax, but this is nothing compared with the climactic episode which follows the return of the ‘folk song’ theme. Over menacing tremolo figures in the piano part, the theme is twisted until it reaches an almost hysterical climax, all three instruments under great pressure and the cello most of all. The octave leap, ‘Farewell’, is screamed out by all the players. Schubert reprieves us from this torment with a welcome return of the second theme in C major, and this is developed to another majestic climax. Has positivity won? Alas, no; the cello reminds us that there is always a dark side, and in a slower coda the opening theme trudges onwards, the piano giving a great sigh at the end before the strings say ‘Farewell, farewell’. The third movement is a Scherzo and Trio which lowers the temperature with a kind of Austrian Ländler played in canon between piano and strings. The second theme, in E major, is another repeated-note theme, beautifully extended in a lyrical waltz. The Trio section, in A flat, opens with a hint of a distant regimental band. As with other Schubert scherzos and trios, little elements of themes from other movements find their way into the texture. The repeated-note theme appears, and in the second half of the trio the cello sings a lyrical tune which alludes to the opening of the first movement. The beginning of the fourth movement looks suspiciously simple on the page but is a moment of anxiety for many pianists. Three enormous and taxing movements have been played, and now there is an even bigger mountain to climb, for the final movement is one of Schubert’s mightiest, with matching technical demands. From the bouncing rondo theme and a contrasting theme of tinkling repeated notes, he crafts a huge structure. Even with the ninety-eight bars of cuts 83


he made from his original version, the movement is still colossal. From the main themes it passes through an exuberant dance section in which all three instruments toss virtuoso scale passages to one another. The repeated-note theme drives the next phase of development, and we move into the distant key of B minor where Schubert has one of his most striking inspirations: the return of the slow movement’s song theme, now accompanied by ghostly, almost jazzy offbeat figures in the piano, with rhythmic pizzicato chords on the violin, creating a strange complicated feeling of energetic melancholy. Schubert was evidently pleased with the effect, for after a huge reprise he brings the song back at the end of the movement, this time in a mournful E flat minor. The song starts quietly, but after one verse it suddenly bursts out into the major key, a transfusion of energy which propels the movement to an exultant end. Even at the end of this epic journey, there is no lingering: the work finishes with a crisp, almost military salute.

22. Rondo for Piano Duet in A major, D951 Schubert is unusual among great composers in having written large numbers of piano duets for four hands at one piano – he wrote them all through his composing life, and in many different forms: dances, variations, fantasies, sonatas, marches, fugues and rondos. We know of course that Schubert was a fan of amateur musicmaking with friends who would sit round a piano in someone’s home to sing, play and listen to one another. Schubert’s friends were a loyal and supportive group, and they met for ‘Schubertiades’, evenings of Schubert’s music, for about seven years from 1821 until 1828, the last year of his life. At these evenings Schubert played the piano, occasionally sang, and played piano duets with various friends. His fondness for these sociable gatherings seems lovable to us now, but it is worth noting that some of his contemporaries saw such gatherings as essentially un-serious. The sociable drawing room was associated with women, and could not therefore be a serious forum for great music or musicians. Schubert clearly didn’t feel that way – he loved domestic music-making and although he did not have a refined piano technique, his playing was greatly appreciated. His friend Joseph Lanz wrote that Schubert ‘certainly didn’t have a beautiful finger action or 84


even good fingering, but in spite of this, his playing conveyed such clarity in the presentation of ideas, especially in his own compositions, that one would have to have heard him oneself to get a true idea of it’. The music Schubert wrote for such gatherings, or which had its first outing at such gatherings, was in no way trivialised. This in fact is one of the most admirable qualities of Schubert’s duet music, that he expressed himself unstintingly and gave to two (often amateur) pianists the chance to bring music of the highest imaginative quality to life. Piano duets had been part of Schubert’s repertoire since as a young man he had a summer job tutoring two young ladies, with whom he played duets. In Schubert’s day, the piano keyboard was narrower than it is now, with the result that two duet players had to sit quite close together – an opportunity for a kind of controlled intimacy which all duet players will have encountered, willingly or otherwise. Indeed, Schubert (like all writers of piano duets) sometimes seems deliberately to write in such a way that the right hand of the ‘bass’ player becomes lightly entangled with the left hand of the ‘treble’ player, and skilful fingering is needed in order not to put one’s hand on top of the other person’s. If one’s duet partner is a good friend, one may hardly notice it, but if playing with a stranger or a teacher it can feel quite odd; as we know from the novels of Jane Austen (a contemporary of Schubert’s), even the slight touching of hands can seem fraught with meaning. Another intimate aspect of playing piano duets is that one is aware of the other person’s breathing. This can be used to improve co-ordination between the players, for example, by breathing audibly to indicate an upbeat or the end of a rest or pause. In a less favourable setting, the sound of the other person’s breathing can be distracting. Such problems do not exist with duos for two pianos, where the players are much further apart. However, Schubert never wrote duos for two pianos, so we can assume that he liked the proximity. In the last year of his life, Schubert wrote some of his finest music for piano duet – the Fantasy in F minor, the single-movement Allegro in A minor, and the Rondo, sometimes called the Grand Rondo in A major, D951. Scholars have suggested that the last two of these, the Allegro and the Rondo, may have been intended as the first and second movements of a sonata for four hands – possibly a two-movement sonata modelled on Beethoven’s E minor piano sonata, op. 90. 85


At least, the Rondo in A major seems to be modelled on the second movement of Beethoven’s op. 90, which has a similarly serene mood and a similar design of four- or eight-bar phrases with ‘answers’ supplied an octave higher. Beethoven’s marking of ‘Nicht zu geschwind’ (not too swift) finds an echo in Schubert’s ‘Allegretto quasi Andantino’. Like all Rondos, Schubert’s introduces a theme which returns several times in the course of the piece, interspersed with contrasting episodes and subsidiary themes derived from aspects of the main theme. Schubert cannot resist departing from his model in ways which make his Rondo even more touching – with little dotted-note upbeats, and characteristic little major/minor pivots which seem to throw a shadow over what we have been enjoying as an unclouded melody. For a while all is calm, but when the piece moves into C major, a sterner mood awakens, with rapid semiquaver triplets in the upper part and a dotted-rhythm theme in octaves in the bottom part. Here one can easily imagine that the piano duet represented to Schubert a means of compressing an orchestral score into a small and practical format, for in one’s mind one starts to ‘hear’ orchestral instruments playing different lines. This is especially true in the masterly episode near the end when the music moves into F major with the most important subsidiary theme in the ‘cello’ part, while in the treble part there are rapid pattering chords, marked ‘ppp’, for all the world like a miniaturised orchestral woodwind section. The main theme makes its final return in the ‘cello’ register too, giving the pianist on the lower part a moment of glory. Although so much of Schubert’s late music had to wait years to be discovered and published, the Rondo in A major was published just a month after his death, which probably indicates how confident the publisher was that it would sell in large numbers. Despite its popularity, however, there remains something mysterious about it, like so much of Schubert’s music which seems outwardly happy yet inwardly wistful. Some years later, Robert Schumann wrote with characteristic insight to his piano teacher and future father-in-law Friedrich Wieck: ‘I remember having played this Rondo for the first time at a soirée at Probst’s. At the end, players and listeners looked at each other for a long time and did not know what they sensed or what Schubert intended. . . . Apart from Schubert there is no music that is so psychologically remarkable in the sequence of ideas, their inter-relationships 86


and in the seemingly logical transitions. How few have been able, like Schubert, to impress one single individuality onto such a diversity of tonal images.’

23. Piano Sonata in A major, D959 Schubert’s last three piano sonatas were written in the final months of his life. He wanted to dedicate them to Hummel, but died before the sonatas were published. In due course the publisher dedicated them to Robert Schumann who, ten years after Schubert’s death, had worked hard to make Schubert’s late music known to the public. Schubert’s late works – such as the piano trios in B flat and E flat, the String Quintet, the song cycle Winterreise, the Ninth Symphony, the three-movement Fantasy for violin and piano – are remarkable for their spaciousness, their sense of leisurely exploration. Robert Schumann put a positive spin on this by saying that they had ‘heavenly length’, and indeed the word ‘heavenly’ seems apt. At the beginning of the year in which Schubert wrote the epic compositions we now recognise as his greatest works, he was highly esteemed as a composer of songs and of many tiny and charming dances, such as the Deutsche Tänze (German Dances), played at social and domestic occasions. His miniatures have mastered the art of packing a lot of meaning into a short space, and he was loved for it. On looking through some of his song scores, the mighty Beethoven had said, ‘This Schubert has a divine spark’. Why then in 1828, when his own health was fragile, did Schubert suddenly feel the need to grapple with long instrumental compositions? Beethoven’s death in 1827 may have had something to do with it. There was a lot of talk in Vienna about who would take Beethoven’s place, and Schubert (who had been a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral) had wondered aloud whether he would ever be able to write a work worthy to stand beside Beethoven’s. In fact, Schubert was not always a fan of Beethoven. As a teenager he had confided to his diary that Mozart was his role model and that music should rid itself of the bizarre German ideas which were corrupting it (a coded reference to Beethoven). Later, however, he revised his view and came to revere Beethoven. After the great man died, one can imagine that Schubert may have felt that he had the field to himself 87


and should do something to prove that he could paint on the large as well as the small canvas. Another explanation for his late obsession with long instrumental works might be to do with his own health. From his mid-twenties Schubert had known that he had contracted syphilis, a condition that would probably curtail his life. In his late compositions it often feels as if he is fighting against this feeling by creating a serene and endless flow of music in which time is at his disposal and under his own control. It seems as if he cannot bear to let go, always wants to look around another corner, always wants to have time to dream. The A major sonata is less well known than the B flat sonata, perhaps for the simple reason that its opening theme is less obviously singable. Its opening six bars are more like a chorale in which, however, the top line is not a melody but a sequence of repeated notes. As it turns out, repeated notes are a feature of the whole sonata: the second subject of the first movement, the thematic material of the Scherzo, the second subject of the Finale, as well as many of the energetic development passages all use repeated notes to hammer home their points. This use of repeated notes gives to the music a sense of chanting, or even of speaking, and shows how much value Schubert attached to the piano’s ability to articulate. Obviously there are no words attached to his themes, but there is a sense of him telling us something rather than simply singing melodies for us. Within the first eight bars of the first movement Schubert introduces the three main drivers of the musical argument: repeated notes in the treble, jumping octaves in the bass, and in bar 8 the mysterious rising semitone in the bass which recurs throughout the sonata to signal that something is stirring and the mood is changing. Schubert ends the first section with a characteristic touch. We hear the second theme stated for the third and final time, followed by a little two-bar decoration or echo which seems a mere afterthought. It is, however, this little two-bar phrase which turns out to be the main material of the development section. Wandering from the key of C to B and back again, it seems to have nothing more on its mind than a dreamy meditation. Beethoven in a parallel place would probably have caused his main themes to clash together, producing sparks to drive the music 88


onward. Schubert doesn’t engage with any such argument. He goes where the wind blows him, his goal to be in the moment. In its own way this has as much impact as anything Beethoven might have written. The slow movement was possibly inspired by an earlier Schubert song, Pilgerweise, in the same key of F sharp minor and with a very similar lilt. Its lyrics tell how the narrator is a wanderer on the earth, going silently from house to house. The basic shape of the slow movement is A-B-A, with two outer ‘lullaby’ sections of great sadness, almost hopelessness. In the left hand Schubert has marked the low bass notes to be quiet and staccato, giving the character of a muffled drum beat and removing any sense of comfort. These two lullabies frame one of the most extraordinary outbursts in all of Schubert’s music. This stormy middle section, which blows up out of nowhere, has been variously described by leading pianists as ‘the greatest mad scene ever written’ (Mitsuko Uchida), ‘the musical equivalent of a nervous breakdown’ (Alfred Brendel), ‘a composed hallucination’ ( Jonathan Biss), ‘one of the most bizarre and anarchic explosions in all of music’ (Paul Lewis). It may seem like a storm surge, even a scream of fear. Some listeners find this nightmare totally convincing, while others sense a touch of melodrama which doesn’t seem entirely natural to Schubert. Is it an attempt to out-Beethoven Beethoven? Certainly it may seem that when the music calms down and finds its way back to the opening lullaby, Schubert’s gentle character reappears to touching effect. The return of the theme is accompanied by a new little triplet figure, repeated C sharps in the treble, like someone tapping quietly at the door with a warning. The Scherzo is a cheerful, jumpy movement which passes around various fragments from other movements under quick review. For example, the rushing C sharp minor downward scale from the ‘nightmare’ of the slow movement makes a sudden appearance, and immediately afterwards the third bar of the lullaby is transformed into a wisp of dance music. In the slower Trio section, there is a quiet chorale in the middle register. Its rhythm harks back to the rhythm of the slow movement’s lullaby, subtly continuing Schubert’s meditation on that movement. The first movement is also recalled: the third and fourth bars of its second theme are outlined in the lowest line of the chorale (and this same motif is to be an ingredient of the final 89


Rondo’s second theme). Around the chorale, meanwhile, the jumping octaves of the first movement reverse their direction and enlarge their compass. The Finale must have been inspired by the equivalent movement of Beethoven’s G major piano sonata, op. 31 no. 1, because Schubert follows its pattern closely: a Rondo in Allegretto tempo, with a sixteen-bar theme in the treble which then moves into the left hand to be heard again against a background of running triplets in the right hand. Schubert takes a more leisurely course than Beethoven does through the long episodes of the Rondo, but just before the Coda he again follows Beethoven in the device of breaking up his theme into fragments as though turning each fragment this way and that to the light, bidding it farewell before the final Presto. Whereas Beethoven keeps the original character of his thematic fragments, however, merely changing the tempo of some of them and introducing the mildest of twists to their harmonies, Schubert goes further. His fragments, separated by painful silences, look outside the frame to hint at other possible directions, or perhaps to regret that they have not been taken. We understand they could have gone into the minor, into other keys, or to be coloured by other harmonies. The final fragment, which seems to get us back on track, is denied its resolution by an emotionally charged pause in which Schubert seems to decide there is nothing for it but to follow Beethoven’s example and make a dash for safety.



The Growing Power of the Nineteenth-Century Piano


As the piano continued to develop in sonority and expressive possibilities, it became the vital instrument for a succession of Romantic composer-pianists based all across Europe. Germany was still the centre of this musical culture. Felix Mendelssohn was the darling of the Victorian drawing room, but with a brilliance that transcended the sentimental. His sister Fanny Mendelssohn, her public career confined by society’s expectations, was a fine composer in her own right. Robert Schumann, introverted by nature, developed a highly personal way of writing for the instrument that is closely related to his songs. His wife Clara was a precocious composer of piano music in her youth. The Schumanns’ great friend, Johannes Brahms, synthesised all these developments in music of satisfying depth and complexity. Chopin, from Poland, and Liszt, from Hungary, were rival virtuoso celebrities of the 1830s and 1840s who developed their careers in western Europe: Chopin mainly in France and Liszt primarily in Germany. Chopin’s performances were mainly restricted to intimate salons by temperament and frail health, while Liszt commanded the public platform like a rock star. In France, Camille SaintSaëns enjoyed a long and prolific career, attentive to French musical tradition and the craft of beautifully finished melodic composition. Georges Bizet was an outstanding pianist who chose not to perform in public and whose composing career was based more on orchestral music and opera than on piano music, but his Jeux d’Enfants for piano duet seems as fresh today as when he wrote it. In Russia, mighty talents were starting to flourish. Balakirev, following the efforts of Glinka, strove to work Russian folk music into his own. The strikingly original Modest Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition, in its original form for solo piano a redoubtable challenge to the pianist. Tchaikovsky, whose piano concertos are still in huge demand, was the first major Russian composer to establish a reputation across the world. The Czech composers Smetana and Dvořák, not principally known for their piano music, nevertheless contributed some beloved works of piano chamber music – a soulful piano trio from Smetana, and a splendid lyrical array of piano trios, quartets and a wonderful piano quintet from Dvořák.



FANNY MENDELSSOHN (1805–1847) 24. Das Jahr Fanny Mendelssohn (later Hensel), the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn, was a superbly gifted musician who composed nearly 500 works and played the piano well enough to have been a celebrated virtuoso, had she been permitted to have a public career. Like many women of her time, however, it was assumed that music could never be a profession for her; as far as we know, she only played the piano once in public, and that was to perform a piano concerto of her brother’s. In 1820 her father told her that ‘for you, music can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing’. And despite the fact that her brother Felix respected her judgement so much that he nicknamed her ‘Minerva’ (the Roman goddess of wisdom), he too fought against the idea of her publishing her compositions: ‘From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.’ So Fanny confined her activities to the home, organising house concerts and composing in private. At one point her brother Felix agreed to publish several of her songs under his own name. When he visited Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1842, the queen (who was a good singer) asked whether she and Mendelssohn could perform a song that she particularly liked. After they had performed it Mendelssohn had to admit – ‘I found it very hard, but pride goeth before a fall’ – that the song had actually been written by Fanny, which must have made her proud. Although Fanny had to watch from the domestic front while her younger brother rose to eminence as a composer and a major figure in German cultural life, she had the good luck to marry a painter, Wilhelm Hensel, who encouraged her to go on composing. With him as a companion she was also able to undertake some of the foreign travel she had always longed to do. In the summer of 1839 the Hensels set off for a year in Italy. Although it had a slow start (Fanny was 94


unimpressed by the dirt and disorganisation of some Italian cities) their trip had a very happy ending. In Rome, they were included in the social life of the Villa Medici where Fanny met some French intellectuals including the composer Charles Gounod, who admired her and praised her musicianship. Gounod remembered: ‘Madame Henzel [sic] was a first-rate musician − a very clever pianist, physically small and delicate, but her deep eyes and eager glance betrayed an active mind and restless energy.’ Fanny introduced the Villa Medici circle to much German piano music by playing it to them, sometimes from memory. Far away from the disapproving comments of her family in Germany, she blossomed. She confided to her diary: ‘I will not conceal it from myself, that the atmosphere of admiration and respect with which I am surrounded has partly contributed to it. In my early youth I have never been so courted as now, and who can deny that this is very pleasant and gratifying.’ On her return to Leipzig in 1841, Fanny set about composing a cycle of twelve pieces inspired by her year in Italy. As Tchaikovsky was to do thirty years later in The Seasons, she wrote a piece for every month. They were not intended for public consumption (and were not published until 1989), but they amount to one of the most substantial piano ‘cycles’ of the nineteenth century, in some ways the equal of the piano works Robert Schumann was writing at the same time, and in fact longer than any of his (the whole set takes around fifty minutes to play). In style they are very like Felix Mendelssohn’s piano writing, passionate and virtuosic with noble long-line melodies and rippling accompaniments. Fanny is not afraid to show her emotions, which gives an added dimension to her music. As a young teenager, Fanny had memorised all forty-eight of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, and she was part of the household when Felix was studying Bach’s St Matthew Passion in preparation for his renowned revival of this masterwork in 1829, on the centenary of its first performance. Fanny incorporated into Das Jahr (The Year) several of the Lutheran chorales that J.S. Bach had set; her brother followed her example in the finale of his Piano Trio in C minor. Das Jahr is the work of a very confident and accomplished pianist. Almost every piece in the cycle is virtuosic at some point, and much of the writing 95


– octaves in both hands, full chords jumping about in the left hand, flying arpeggios, rapid syncopated octaves between the hands – requires a high level of technique. The influence of Bach is striking, no more so than at the austere beginning of ‘January’ where Fanny quotes from Bach’s aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’, the same poignant theme that Beethoven had used twenty years earlier in the last movement of his A flat piano sonata, op. 110. Fanny quotes Bach again in ‘March’, this time his Easter chorale ‘Christ ist erstanden’ (Christ is risen), which she states at first simply and then decorates with arpeggios and chords so that it builds to a triumphant climax. In ‘December’ she repeats the procedure, this time using Bach’s ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’ (From heaven above to earth I come). And in the Postlude, a baker’s dozen of a thirteenth piece, she bids the year farewell with a quiet reflection on Bach’s ‘Das alte Jahr vergangen ist’ (The old year now has passed away). Some of Fanny’s other ideas make one wonder whether Tchaikovsky could have known her piano music (unlikely): her ‘February’ is a bustling Roman Carnival, similar to Tchaikovsky’s own February portrait, and her ‘August’ is a hunting scene with strenuous dotted-rhythm fanfares, quite akin to Tchaikovsky’s September. Elsewhere, one feels the influence of other composers on her: Fanny’s ‘November’ has a hint of Schubert’s famous song Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the spinning-wheel), and the tremulous opening of ‘December’ recalls Liszt’s virtuoso Feux Follets (Will-o’-the-wisps) of 1837. Because her brother Felix’s piano style is well known, it is easy to jump to conclusions and say that her piano style was influenced by his, but of course it could be that it was Felix who learned his piano style from Fanny during their years of listening to one another play in the family household. When I first encountered these pieces, my initial impression was that some of them are over-long, as though Fanny Mendelssohn was not the best judge of how much mileage she could get out of her musical material. But then I realised that I sometimes feel exactly the same about her brother Felix’s piano music. Perhaps one can say of them both that their piano pieces show a comfortable confidence in a circle of listeners who loved them and would indulge them in wherever their imaginations took them. 96


FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809–1847) 25. Variations Sérieuses in D minor, op. 54 Felix Mendelssohn was an extravagant talent, a handsome, charming and cultured man who seemed to be good at everything. When he was only twelve, his piano teacher took him to play to the elderly Goethe, who remembered hearing the sevenyear-old Mozart but claimed to be even more impressed by Mendelssohn (who was, however, five years older). In 1829, at the age of twenty, Mendelssohn was a prime mover in organising and conducting a centenary revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which had scarcely been performed since Bach’s death. It was a huge success and a cultural landmark in Germany which launched Mendelssohn on a high-profile career as composer, conductor, pianist, founder and director of the Leipzig Conservatoire. He enjoyed drawing and painting, was a good administrator, played chess, had many artistic friends, wrote amusing letters, and was what we would probably call ‘a great networker’. Unlike so many composers, Mendelssohn did not have money worries; his family was wealthy and he could afford to devote himself to his artistic projects. Mendelssohn’s interest in Bach was in part a consequence of his family’s assimilation into the Christian church. The Mendelssohns were of Jewish ancestry, but regarded the two faiths as being close to one another in many respects; his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher, was the model for the title role in Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise, which advocates religious tolerance. Felix, though proud of his Jewish ancestry, was a practising Christian. His high reputation as a composer was only punctured when, three years after his death, Richard Wagner accused him in his infamous 1850 essay Das Judentum in Musik ( Jewishness in Music) of writing music which was ‘sweet and tinkling without depth’. Mendelssohn was accused of having borrowed German culture and pretended that it was his own. The growth of anti-Semitic culture, in which Wagner played his part, led to a reappraisal of Mendelssohn’s music. Just how vulnerable he was to shifting prejudices is indicated by an experience I had as late as the 1980s when I went to Germany to perform Mendelssohn’s piano quartets with the group Domus and was told by a member of the audience that ‘it was nice to hear Mendelssohn’s chamber music being played in Germany again.’ 97


Mendelssohn’s piano music has gone in and out of fashion. To some listeners it is charming, tuneful and refined. To others, it is sentimental and conservative. Even his admirers admit that there are ‘too many notes’. Detractors have said that his music reflects the tranquillity and even complacency of a life spent in comfort, but his letters show that he worked hard to master fits of temper, fatigue and nervous irritability (he sometimes apologises for having been ‘a screech-owl’). Perhaps he never bettered the gloriously effortless compositions of his teenage years, such as his Octet for strings, but his work is beautifully crafted and balanced. His Variations Sérieuses were commissioned in 1841 for a ‘Beethoven Album’ of piano music designed to raise funds for a statue of Beethoven in his home town of Bonn. Many piano virtuosi of the day (Liszt, Chopin, Moscheles, Czerny, Thalberg, Henselt, Taubert) agreed to contribute new pieces. Perhaps anticipating that one or two of them would provide frothy confections of little nutritional value, Mendelssohn called his own piece ‘Serious Variations’. Variations had not always been considered all that ‘serious’; it was probably Beethoven who first showed that they could be a profound exploration of how musical material can be transformed, and perhaps the great variation movements in Beethoven’s last piano sonatas were on Mendelssohn’s mind here. Or perhaps he himself was feeling serious at that time; certainly his Variations feel more intense than some of his salon music. His slow theme with its sighing pairs of notes may be another instance of him referencing Bach. The theme seems to recall Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing) – perhaps a sombre allusion to Beethoven’s death. The first four variations treat the theme with increasing rhythmic animation. No. 5, with its syncopated left-hand chords, could have been composed by Mendelssohn’s friend Robert Schumann. Variations 6 to 9 commence another process of speeding up the internal complexity of the decoration. At variation 10 we suddenly get a little passage of fugue (different ‘voices’ entering in canon) and no. 11 is another dreamy Schumannesque variation. Variation 12 sees the theme broken up into loud, staccato pairs of chords rapidly alternated between the hands, almost like the kind of percussive writing that we meet much later in the piano music of Prokofiev. Variation 13 employs the 98


so-called ‘three-hand’ effect made famous by the virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg in his transcriptions: a melodic line in the middle of the keyboard is split between left and right hand, with busy decoration above and below the line being allocated to the spare fingers, making it seem as though a third hand has been enlisted to play the melody. After this there is a pause, maybe to allow the listener to recover from the brilliant effect of variation 13 before the Adagio chorale in D major. This is the only appearance of the major key, a little island in a stormy sea of D minor. It too ends with a pause, as at the end of a prayer. Variation 15 is the most harmonically adventurous, a quiet pulling apart of the theme which almost erases its outline. The final three variations ratchet up the tension with brilliant figuration, culminating in a grand statement of the theme over an operatic tremolo in the low bass. The Presto coda is a whirlwind of energy, but Mendelssohn resists the easy solution of a triumphant final cadence; the final few bars end quietly and thoughtfully in a manner not unlike that of the first movement of Beethoven’s own D minor sonata, op. 31 no. 2, ‘The Tempest’.

26. Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor, op. 49 In August 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to his friend and fellow pianist/composer Ferdinand Hiller, ‘A very important branch of piano music, and one of which I am particularly fond – trios, quartets and other pieces with accompaniment, genuine chamber music – is quite forgotten now and I feel a great urge to do something new of this kind . . . I am thinking of writing a couple of trios next.’ Just over a month later he had completed his first piano trio. He played the piano in its 1840 premiere when the piece was acclaimed by Robert Schumann as ‘the master-trio of our time, even as Beethoven’s in B flat and D and Schubert’s in E flat were the masterpieces of their day; it is an exceedingly fine composition that, years hence, will still delight our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.’ The piano trio had not been ‘quite forgotten’ – after all it was only a few years since the publication of Schubert’s two great trios – but Mendelssohn’s D minor trio is a major contribution to the genre and shows him at his most powerful and focused. It has resisted the ups and downs of his popularity to remain one of the 99


keystones of the trio repertoire. It flows so naturally that it comes as a surprise to learn he revised the piano part when Hiller advised him that the writing was oldfashioned when compared with the latest novelties. Mendelssohn made some changes to the piano part and later remarked that ‘pianists would enjoy playing it because it gives them the opportunity to show off ’. This nonchalant remark belies the demands of the piano part, one of the trickiest in the repertoire. It can only be mastered with intense study, yet its full effect can only be achieved if it sounds effortless. When I first learned the part as a student I doubted that it was possible to play all the notes at the speed required. It took some years before I felt that I had digested the fingering patterns enough to be confident of accuracy under concert conditions, and even now that I know it from memory the prospect of performing it always makes me sigh at the thought of the practising that awaits me. Except for a few key moments in the music, the noble long lines of melody are given to the violin and cello. The piano’s role is to provide depth, direction, texture, brilliance and the impression of unstoppable energy. All this is made even more challenging by the fact that Mendelssohn often asks for the music to be played quietly; as all pianists know, it is hard to play quietly and fast. A touching glimpse of Mendelssohn’s character has been given to us by Joseph Joachim, the great violinist who played in a performance of this trio in London in 1844. Joachim, only thirteen at the time, had been brought by Mendelssohn to London to perform the Beethoven violin concerto. While they were there, they agreed to play the D minor trio in a mixed programme shared with other musicians. Arriving at the concert venue, they found that the organisers had put only the string parts on the music stands: there was no piano part on the piano. ‘Mendelssohn was rather cross about this,’ Joachim recalled in 1898 when interviewed by the Musical Times, ‘but he said “Never mind, put any book on the piano, and someone can turn from time to time, and then it need not look as if I play by heart”.’ As Joachim said, ‘this might be considered a good moral lesson of a great musician’s modesty’. The first movement has an unforgettable opening when the cello begins a long sweeping melodic line, played quietly with the piano simmering underneath. 100


Gradually the energy builds up as the piano part bursts into arpeggios. The more relaxed second theme provides most of the musical material for the development. At the reprise there is a particularly imaginative touch where, over the return of the first theme, the violin enters on a high note and descends with one of those ethereally descending lines at which Mozart was so good. Not only is this a descant of genius, it turns out to be the important second theme of the slow movement. The piano begins the slow movement with a ‘song without words’, a lovely hymn-like melody with each half echoed by the strings. In the middle of the movement the serene mood is suddenly interrupted by a turn to the minor; here we encounter once again the ‘descant’ from the first movement’s reprise, now promoted to the status of a soprano aria. It develops into an ardent dialogue between violin and cello. Eventually it subsides into a return of the first theme, most beautifully embellished by the piano with filigree decoration which needs gentle handling to produce a gossamer effect. Mendelssohn marks an extremely fast metronome mark – dotted crotchet = 120 – for the Scherzo. Did he really want it to be played so fast, or was his marking a mistake? Undoubtedly a rapid tempo would have been easier on the pianos of Mendelssohn’s day with their lighter action, but modern pianos make it very challenging to play so fast and quietly. The violinist Sándor Végh pointed out to me that the ‘lilt’ is a vital part of the charm. In a time-signature of 6/8, each bar contains two lilting units of a crotchet plus a quaver: ‘tum-ti, tum-ti’. Today one often hears the piano part played with such ruthless momentum that the lilt is squashed out of existence and we hear only the two main dotted-crotchet pulses: ‘tum, tum’ (without the intervening ‘ti’). Once the character of the lilt is understood and the players find a tempo which makes it possible, there is space for the bars to breathe, even at a fast tempo. If this means that Mendelssohn’s metronome mark must be disobeyed, then so be it. The priority is to evoke a Midsummer Night’s Dream of fairies dancing weightlessly in the forest, rather than teenagers riding through it on motorbikes. The opening of the finale seems surprisingly leaden after the fairy world of the Scherzo, but soon builds up into a virtuoso display. This is the movement which 101


Mendelssohn upgraded with flashier figuration, and indeed it is a showcase of flying arpeggios and chromatic runs. There is a welcome change of pace when the cello introduces a beautiful new lyrical theme in B flat; to modern ears this moment has just a touch of Victorian sentimentality, but any doubts are swept away by the élan of the instrumental writing. The opening theme ventures back on tiptoe and develops confidence amid further cascades in the piano part. Just as we sense the end must be approaching, the lyrical theme swings back in the home key, and in the final pages we feel as if Mendelssohn is striving to fold together the two wings of his composition, the lyrical and the virtuosic.

JOHN FIELD (1782–1837) 27. Nocturne no. 14 in C major (and others) We’re jumping back a few years in chronology now, because John Field may seem to belong more to the era of Beethoven, but I wanted him to begin a trio of composers which ends with Chopin. Field was an Irish composer and pianist who moved to London, studied piano with Clementi, became a successful pianist and went into partnership with his teacher in the business of selling pianos. Clementi and Field travelled widely, eventually reaching St Petersburg where Field was so taken with the rich cultural life that he decided to stay and make his home in Russia. Field is credited with being the first person to write nocturnes for piano. The tradition of writing ‘night music’ was an old one; Mozart had written ‘Nachtmusik’ and Haydn had written ‘notturni’, but those titles refer rather to the time of day the piece was intended to be played. Field’s nocturnes were an innovation in that they were not meant necessarily to be played at night but rather to evoke night’s atmosphere and the kind of dreamy, regretful thoughts associated with the hours of darkness. His nocturnes served a double purpose: they were self-contained piano pieces, but he also used them as ready-made slow movements for his sonatas and concertos, for which he rarely supplied a slow movement. In performance, he just chose one of his nocturnes to play between the two fast movements. 102


Field’s nocturnes are sometimes compared with Chopin’s and found wanting, but it’s important to remember that Field was only twelve years younger than Beethoven and developed his style in an era when Romantic effusiveness was not yet fully in vogue. When Field published his first nocturnes in 1814, Chopin was only four years old. Field had evidently thought of calling his pieces ‘Romances’, but he settled on ‘Nocturne’, this being the French word for ‘nocturnal’: of the night. One of his innovations was to treat the nocturne as a sort of wordless song in which the pianist imitated the kind of vocal line familiar to audiences from opera, particularly the art of bel canto (‘beautiful song’, an expressive style which featured graceful decoration). A ‘song without words’, then, although Mendelssohn did not use that term until around 1830. Field’s nocturnes are very varied in style, but his early nocturnes feature a ‘singing’ line for the right hand and a gently flowing accompaniment in the bass. They are graceful and poetic, mildly adventurous in harmony but never wrenching the listener out of a pleasant reverie. Nocturne no. 7 is the first which varies the approach: here, the focus moves to the left hand, which carries the melody line through a series of rippling chords, some of them widely spaced (and reminiscent of the rippling chords in Chopin’s Étude in E flat, op. 10 no. 11), while the right hand is chiefly occupied with elaborate decoration. The ninth nocturne, in E flat, will irresistibly remind most listeners of Chopin’s famous nocturne op. 9 no. 2 in the same key, partly because the left-hand pattern is very similar. Nocturne no. 10 is brief and melancholy, one of Field’s rare minor-key nocturnes. His own copy shows the fingering he recommended: for example, the nine-note descending scale for the right hand just after the reprise was all to be played with the fourth finger, an effective approach that would separate the notes and bring out their ‘speaking’ quality, as if they were words. At this point, Field took a nine-year break from writing nocturnes. When he returned to them in 1832, he had become more interested in developing his themes, and less in operatic decoration. No. 11 in E flat opens in mysterious fashion, the left hand playing repeated B flats which dissolve into hazy harmonies always with that same B flat at the bottom. It becomes clear that B flat is the fifth of the chord, not the root, which 103


gives the harmony a floating quality; when the right hand comes in, it begins with those same repeated B flats, which this time turn out to be the start of the main melody. Just a glance at the score shows that much of the decoration has gone; Field is now keen to colour his themes with moves to other keys. The finest of Field’s nocturnes is probably no. 14 in C major, written in 1835 when he was on his way back to Russia from his last European concert tour. He had been very unwell during the tour, so unwell that he had to spend nine months in hospital in Naples before continuing his northward journey. Unsurprisingly, the tone of this extended nocturne is serious. At the beginning the hesitant treble line, over pulsing quaver chords in the bass, evokes the similar opening of Chopin’s E minor Prelude (written a few years later). The style is vocal and operatic, even including some cadenza passages which could almost be recitative, as though the composer is recounting a painful episode. The central G major section features a lyrical theme in thirds and sixths over flowing bass triplets, like a duet between two lovers. As it dies down, Field makes a subtle return to his opening theme by bringing it back not in the expected key of C but in A flat major, a delicious effect. The main reprise is full of intricate decoration, finally dissolving into shimmering sextuplets in the high treble (an effect which Ravel used a century later in the slow movement of his G major piano concerto). Pulsing quavers return in the last bars, triggering a final ‘sigh’ from the right hand, and an unexpectedly dry ending with two staccato chords played pianissimo, almost like someone quietly saying ‘The End’. In 1832 a distinguished audience gathered at the Paris Conservatoire to hear the renowned John Field play the piano. Chopin, who had given his own triumphant debut concert in Paris that year, was in the audience. Unfortunately, Field was by then in declining health, and his piano technique was declining too; Chopin judged him ‘feeble – incapable of executing difficulties’ and even Liszt, a fan of Field’s, thought his playing was ‘sleepy’. Nevertheless, Chopin was motivated to get his piano students to learn some of Field’s music. As for Field, he once said that Chopin was ‘nothing but a writer of Mazurkas’, which must indicate that he never knew Chopin’s mature works. Critics were divided in their opinion of who wrote the better nocturnes: the Berlin music critic Ludwig Rellstab once complained that ‘Where Field smiles, Chopin makes a grimace . . . and where 104


Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of cayenne pepper.’ Posterity has decided that Chopin’s cayenne pepper is more to its taste, but Field’s milder recipe has always had admirers.

MARIA SZYMANOWSKA (1789–1831) 28. Études (and other pieces) When we discuss the composers who influenced Chopin, John Field is often mentioned, but rarely the Polish female pianist and composer Maria Szymanowska. Schumann described her as ‘a Field amongst women’, but somehow she slipped from sight. I certainly never came across her music when I was learning the piano, and the dictionaries I used as a student do not include her, but I was brought up to date by reading Sławomir Dobrzański’s research material about Szymanowska on the website of the Polish Music Center based at the University of Southern California. Maria Szymanowska was a most unusual figure, a published composer, a pianist whose playing was admired all over Europe, and a woman who made her living by concert touring at a time when society was only too ready to frown on independent women. Another of her claims to a place in the history books is that she was one of the first pianists to play from memory in a public recital. Szymanowska grew up in Warsaw where her parents’ home was a meeting place for literary and artistic visitors. She showed early talent on the harpsichord and clavichord, graduating to the piano when that instrument became widely available. Because she was a girl, she was not eligible to study at the Warsaw Conservatory. She was tutored at home, but seems to have developed a piano technique largely through her own efforts. Her family supported her wish to be recognised as a solo pianist and in 1810 arranged for her to perform in Paris, where Cherubini was so impressed that he dedicated a Fantasy to her. Szymanowska returned to Poland, married, and had three children. Her marriage broke up in 1820, partly because her husband was not in sympathy with her wish to be a concert pianist. After her divorce she determined to earn money for herself and her children. Her parents 105


agreed to look after her children, and she set about organising her own concert tours. This was only possible because her family was able to gather letters of introduction from respected musicians and aristocratic music-lovers to their counterparts in foreign cities, people able to smooth their path when they arrived somewhere new. A brother and sister of Maria’s went on tour with her to take care of practical aspects. In each city, they made social calls, deploying their letters of introduction. These often led to Maria being asked to give piano lessons, for which she charged quite a high fee. Her brother would arrange to rent a hall for her recital (sometimes this was done for them as a gesture of support by an upperclass well-wisher), prepare posters, sell tickets and gather up the money after the concert. Her sister helped with domestic arrangements. The three of them were an efficient unit, carefully noting their income and expenses. Astoundingly, the first tour lasted four years, from 1822 to 1826, during which Szymanowska played in Russia, Germany, France, England, Italy, Belgium and Holland. After playing in Marienbad, she met the great Goethe, who was delighted with her. Goethe at the time was tormented by a love affair, but his heart was soothed by Maria’s playing: ‘Madame Szymanowska, an incredibly fine pianist, affected me just as powerfully, though in quite a different way. I fancy she might be compared to our Hummel, only that she is a lovely and amiable Polish lady.’ Later in the year they met again in Weimar, where they may have been lovers. Goethe reported: ‘Her charming presence and priceless talent had already been a great joy to me in Marienbad, and now for a fortnight my house was the rendezvous of every music-lover, drawn there by her art and her lovable nature. Inspired by her, both Court and town lived on in an atmosphere of music and joy.’ In Italy, the Polish diplomat and composer Prince Ogiński wrote: ‘I watched her again with an unspeakable pleasure in Florence. It was then that I learned that the constant work on her talent during her travels have incredibly perfected her way of playing which seems to be impeccable even in the eyes of the harshest critics.’ Szymanowska was aware of the need to look good as well as play beautifully. After a Paris concert, she wrote to her parents, ‘I would like to let my sisters 106


know that the dress was a success. It was a white barège [gauzy silk] gown with wide sleeves, draped, my pin with antique ornamentation, bayadère [striped fabric] on my neck, white barège with blue and gold trim. I wore a superb blue barège turban.’ As a Moscow music critic later wrote of her, ‘A painter saw in front of him the beautiful epitome of a woman, one that matched the ideal of a Greek goddess.’ The Tsar attended one of her concerts and bestowed on her the title of ‘First Pianist of their Highnesses the Tsarinas Elizabeth Alexandrovna and Maria Fiedorovna’. Feeling warmly appreciated in St Petersburg, Szymanowska decided in 1827 to settle there with her children. She played, composed, taught, and built up an artistic salon visited by John Field, Glinka, Hummel, Pushkin and Chopin’s favourite Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who became Maria’s son-in-law when he married her daughter Celina. Sadly, four years later Maria Szymanowska died in the 1831 cholera epidemic. Chopin was twenty years younger than Szymanowska. While he was growing up in Warsaw, Symanowska’s Vingt Exercices et Préludes, a set of pieces exploring and testing many aspects of piano technique, were widely played and admired. Her ‘exercises’ were interchangeably known as ‘Études’, probably by analogy with Chopin’s. Chopin very likely studied them, particularly as his teacher Józef Elsner was a great friend of Szymanowska’s parents. We know that Chopin probably attended Maria’s ‘farewell’ concert in 1827 before she left for St Petersburg. At any rate, as Dobrzański has pointed out, there are numerous similarities between Szymanowska’s ‘exercises and preludes’ and Chopin’s later Preludes and Études. For example, Szymanowska’s Étude no. 1 in F major has rapid arpeggiated figuration and left-hand chords very like Chopin’s F major prelude or his F major Étude, op. 10 no. 8. Szymanowska’s bouncy ‘Anglaise’ in E flat from Eighteen Dances seems to find an echo in Chopin’s ‘Écossaise’, op. 72 no. 3 (a shift northwards from England to Scotland). Szymanowska’s third Étude has figuration quite like that of Chopin’s C major Étude, op. 10 no. 7. Her Étude no. 12 has parallels not only with Chopin’s A minor Étude op. 25 no. 4 but also with one of his op. 2 Variations on Là ci darem la mano. Szymanowska’s Waltz no. 3 in F major reminds one a little of Chopin’s posthumously published A flat waltz. Several of Szymanowska’s mazurkas resemble Chopin’s. And so on. In every case, 107


Szymanowska was first with the idea. This is not to say that Chopin intentionally stole her ideas, especially since his compositions are always more complex and imaginative. In the case of the mazurkas and polonaises, indeed, one might contend that they both drew on folk material which is part of every Polish musician’s heritage. Nevertheless there are enough similarities of detail and texture between Szymanowska’s études and Chopin’s to prove that her piano music was a source of inspiration for him. Chopin didn’t talk about the Polish musicians who influenced him when he was growing up. The fact that Szymanowska was a woman (and a woman of the older generation) might have made a young man even less likely to admit to being influenced by her. But it is interesting that the genres in which Szymanowska composed – preludes, études, waltzes, écossaises, nocturnes, mazurkas, ballades and polonaises – were all genres embraced by Chopin. One of Szymanowska’s last compositions was the beautiful Nocturne in B flat (1831) written in St Petersburg. In melodic outline, decoration and formal shape it has things in common with Chopin’s Nocturne in A flat, op. 32 no. 2, of 1837. Is it likely that a piano piece written by Madame Szymanowska in Russia had come to Chopin’s attention in Paris? Maybe it had – or perhaps each of them was drawing on the pianistic language they had both helped to create. In 1836, Robert Schumann, always generous in paying tribute to other artists, wrote of Szymanowska’s études: ‘Thanks to their creative ingenuity and uniqueness, we deem these études the most remarkable of all that has been created by women musicians thus far. One must not forget that they were written many years ago, and therefore, much of what would later come to be seen as ordinary should be perceived here as new and outstanding.’

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (1810–1849) 29. Ballade no. 1 in G minor, op. 23 Chopin was the first major composer to stake his reputation almost entirely on piano music. All his 200+ compositions are for solo piano, or involve the piano in 108


some way, such as piano and orchestra, piano and cello, or piano and voice. Other composers of the nineteenth century have given the impression that their piano music could equally have been cast as an orchestral work, or might equally have enjoyed life as an opera scene or a song, but Chopin’s creative interest was focused on the solo piano. Even his piano concertos with orchestra have a hint of ‘duty’ about them, as though he knew it would be sensible to write something with orchestra, but wasn’t really interested in orchestral sonorities. His compositions for solo piano expanded the public’s idea of what the piano was capable of doing, both in terms of technique and in poetic expression. Chopin suffered from tuberculosis which ended his life at the age of only thirty-nine, and his fragile health contributed to his mystique. Many people imagine Chopin as he looks in the famous photograph taken by the French photographer Bisson in 1849: pale and exhausted, he fixes us with a haunted look. Chopin was born in Poland, but left Warsaw in 1830 at the age of twenty to seek success and artistic fulfilment in the capitals of Europe. His first piano teacher had given him a silver urn full of Polish earth to take with him as a keepsake: ‘May you never forget your native land wherever you go, nor cease to love it with a warm and faithful heart.’ On his way to Paris, Chopin learned of the failure of the Polish uprising against Russian occupation, and realised he could not return home. From that point onward his music was haunted by the sadness of exile and by nostalgia for his native land. He may not have been the first person to bring Mazurkas, Polonaises and their characteristic ‘modes’ into the concert hall and the classical repertoire, but he gives an exceptionally vivid impression that he knew how they were really played and danced in Poland. Chopin’s piano music has become a vehicle for virtuoso display and theatrical presentation, but his own playing was very subtle. He was a frail man, and those who heard him often described him as playing quietly and delicately, with frequent use of the ‘soft’ pedal to make the sonority even more muted. Of course, listeners’ impressions of his playing must have been dependent on the pieces he played; if he were playing his own Polonaises, for example, he must have enlarged at least his expressive effects, and probably the palette of pianistic colours too. Chopin was a wonderful improviser, and people who heard him improvise maintained 109


that he was at his best in this context. Moreover, when he played his own notated pieces he kept an improvisatory spirit, always varying the way he played them according to his mood and how strong he was feeling. He himself was not a fan of public performance and once said (rather terrifyingly) that one cannot expect to hear real music at concerts. Today, when concert pianists are under pressure to give 50–100 concerts a year, it is astonishing to think that in Chopin’s whole career he gave only around 30 public performances. He preferred to play to invited audiences in private drawing rooms, and the transcendent effect is clear from his listeners’ reminiscences. In 1838, Sir Charles Hallé heard Chopin play his own music at a private dinner in Paris. He reported: ‘I sat entranced, filled with wonderment, and if the room had suddenly been peopled with fairies I should not have been astonished. The marvellous charm, the poetry and originality, the perfect freedom and absolute lucidity of Chopin’s playing at that time cannot be described . . . I could have dropped to my knees to worship him.’ This description should give heart to those who wonder whether they will ever be advanced enough to tackle Chopin’s piano music. It seems likely that Chopin himself would not have approved of the barnstorming and egotistical way his music has sometimes been performed in the modern concert hall and the recording studio. It is encouraging to realise that the qualities mentioned in Hallé’s description of Chopin’s playing – poetry, charm, freedom, lucidity – are not restricted to pianists with superlative techniques, and therefore pianists of every age and stage should feel that they have their own authentic relationship with Chopin’s music. Although a lot of his piano music requires an advanced technique, there are plenty of technically simpler pieces (some of the Preludes, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Polonaises) which allow less advanced pianists to start exploring Chopin’s world. In 1831, Chopin sketched the first of his four Ballades, the G minor, which remained his own favourite. It was inspired by the romantic and epic poetry of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, though he never said whether there was a particular narrative behind it. He finished writing it in Paris in 1835, by which time he had become a celebrated pianist, composer and teacher. The first ballade lasts 110


around eleven minutes in performance, but that brief span feels symbolic of something much bigger. Its structure seems fluid and almost improvised, and yet the sense of a powerful drama unfolding is unmistakable. Chopin has a marvellous gift for creating themes that appear distinct but are nevertheless related. Even the opening arc-like phrase, which seems like a mere introduction to the main melodic material, turns out to contain the ‘cells’ of several motifs which reappear in the main themes. All of these bear some relation to one another, which gives the feeling of organic development. Like Mozart, Chopin knows how to compose seamless transitions, so that there is a sense of inevitability about the arrival and departure of the main events. New themes sail in on tides that have been caught at just the right moment to float them towards us. Melodic lines accelerate into exquisite tendrils of decoration without interrupting the musical thought. Beneath or around these beautiful tunes are inner parts with rich independent lives, which require the pianist’s fingers to be intricately active, keeping all the elements in play. Chopin makes full use of his seven-octave piano, sweeping across the whole keyboard as though nothing could be more natural than to ‘sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass’, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says. Over the years, the G minor ballade has acquired its own performance traditions, some of which might surprise the composer. Chopin’s notation is very clear, yet it has become traditional (for example) to play the final page more theatrically than he prescribed. Clearly, the last page is crowded with rhythmic and melodic elements being thrown onto the bonfire at the same time. As notated by Chopin, everything happens quite swiftly, with only the briefest of rests separating the contrasting elements, and the length of long notes being restricted. Yet many pianists of later generations have felt that a lot more breathing space is needed for the dramatic contrasts, from the rushing chromatic scales to the dark warning signals of the three-note dotted-rhythm motif, and the final despairing cries of the six-note figure we first heard as an upbeat to the main melodic theme at the beginning. Long notes are elongated, so that they resonate grandly in the concert hall. Silent beats are extended for maximum suspense. Even the famous final bars, where the right and left hands rush at each other from opposite directions at the 111


extremes of the keyboard, are quite clearly marked with the instruction to hold the tempo back for a few moments and then accelerate to the end. This instruction is often ignored or altered for dramatic effect. My guess is that Chopin would have preferred a more fluid approach to the final page, one that allows us to glimpse its various elements ‘en passant’ in a kaleidoscope of energy and emotion.

30. 24 Preludes, op. 28 When we hear the word ‘prelude’, we might think of stand-alone pieces of the type written by Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Gershwin. But there was also a tradition of improvised ‘preluding’ long before the birth of the piano. Organists and harpsichordists would improvise, and published ‘preludes’ developed into a genre of their own. The improvising tradition carried over into pianoplaying, and lasted through to the beginning of the twentieth century. It has so thoroughly fallen out of use that we can scarcely imagine a time when piano recitals would have contained more music than just the pieces itemised on the programme. It was customary for pianists to begin the concert and to link the pieces with short improvised passages of music. This preluding had several functions. It was a way of trying out the piano, checking that everything was working and testing the acoustics of the room; it gave the audience a chance to settle down, and it offered a window onto the pianist’s own creativity. Skilful pianists could link pieces together by improvising in the key of the piece they had just played, and working round to the key of the one which came next. Preluding was almost like the custom of introducing people at a social gathering: a bit of musical etiquette which smoothed the way for someone new. To this day, church organists continue to improvise, but among pianists the habit of preluding has lapsed. Why? No doubt the advent of recording had something to do with it, because as listeners got used to hearing performances on record, they went along to concerts expecting to hear exactly what they had heard on their records. The habit of improvising seemed to pass from ‘art music’ to the field of jazz and popular music. Making stuff up on the spot was something the concert-going public began to associate with non-classical performers. Conversely, 112


classical pianists (influenced probably by the shock of hearing their mistakes and slips immortalised on disc) developed a mania for accuracy and a cult of fidelity to the notated score. As a consequence, most of us today have never heard the type of preluding which was routine in Chopin’s day and well into the twentieth century (the light-music pianist Alberto Semprini used to ‘prelude’ in his popular BBC radio shows in the 1960s and 1970s). For the benefit of pianists reluctant to improvise in public, many nineteenthcentury composers brought out collections of preludes. One of these was Hummel, who composed twenty-four brief preludes covering every major and minor key. They do give the impression of being improvised, but he gave each key a distinctive character. Chopin must have known these pieces, because his own set of 24 Preludes, written between 1835 and 1839, map onto Hummel’s preludes in a number of ways (such as the character of individual keys, and the overall design of the key scheme). In terms of musical invention, however, Chopin’s are a landmark in the history of the genre and a quantum leap forward. His preludes are complete in themselves and musically commanding. It would be ludicrous to use them as introductions to something else; in fact, it’s pretty clear that if any of his preludes were used in that way, the ‘something else’ would lose by the comparison. Today the whole set of twenty-four is often performed and recorded, but as far as we know Chopin himself never played more than four of them in a single concert. Although the preludes can be performed singly, they also link to one another in a subtly satisfying way. Chopin and Schumann, two of the greatest Romantic composers of piano music, knew one another slightly. We know that Schumann admired Chopin, but there is no indication that Chopin admired Schumann or ever played his music. This was in my mind one day when practising some Chopin preludes. Struck by their special amalgam of brevity and intensity, I found myself thinking that Chopin, with his power of compressing musical thoughts, would have been impatient with Schumann’s tendency to ramble. And Chopin’s ability to create beautiful little structures packed with musical incident was probably never more striking than in his preludes. The very first prelude, in C major, is a good example. In a mere thirty-four bars of agitated triplets it creates a powerful arch-shape of rising and falling tension 113


(fans of musical mathematics and ‘golden sections’ will be pleased to find that the climax comes on bar 21 out of 34, two numbers near the start of the Fibonacci sequence). Most of the bars begin with a one-triplet rest for the right hand before it joins in, creating a delicious offbeat. As the tension rises, the right hand suddenly plays on the beat for a few bars, an effect like stepping on a car’s accelerator pedal. Yet at the moment of climax, the right hand jumps back to the offbeat at the very moment when one might think that a thwacking fortissimo downbeat would be the obvious thing. (In my introduction, I referred to the issues facing women pianists with smaller hands, and bar 21 is a classic example: the obvious fingering, which Chopin no doubt expected, requires a wide stretch between the third and fifth fingers on the interval G-D in the middle of the bar – a moment when maximum strength and expression is needed, but where most female pianists probably have to use a complicated fingering which makes it hard to relish the simple exuberance of that moment.) There are only three more melodic bars where the right hand plays on the downbeat (plus the final chord). Chopin’s placing of these few but telling downbeats is not predictable, but feels mysteriously right. No. 2 in A minor (which doesn’t actually attain A minor until almost the end) has a stern, fateful character. Over a slowly writhing bass, we hear three sad phrases echo one another in the right hand. In the dotted rhythm that ends each phrase, is there a hint of the funeral march which he used a few years later in his second piano sonata? No. 3 in G major sends the left hand flying up and down G major arpeggios while scraps of jubilant melody blow about in the right. No. 4, the famous E minor prelude, is another striking example of economy of means but not of expression. This sparingly written piece of twenty-five bars, played at Chopin’s funeral at his own request, has found a rich afterlife in many films, books and songs – a charming example is Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova song Insensatez (How Insensitive). A simple melodic line gradually sinks down, underpinned by a sadly pulsing bass line with slowly developing changes to the chords which colour and intensify the melody. There are two simple ‘verses’, the second unexpectedly heaving itself up from its inexorable descent to lament for three passionate bars, quickly extinguished. The harmonic progression in 114


the final bars seems to have been inspired by Hummel’s own E minor Prelude, op. 67, but Chopin makes a masterful alteration to one of the chords – the one we hear before the pause – so that the seventh of the chord is at the bottom, a poignant effect. No. 5 in D major encourages the pianist to use lateral movement to weave across wide intervals, occasional tiny sighing figures heard here and there in the inner parts. No. 6 in B minor is one of the many preludes to use repeated notes like tiny tolling bells, here given to the right hand while the left hand develops a yearning cantabile melody. No. 7 in A major is just sixteen bars long and simple in outline, a lovely waltz whose bass line keeps to the most obvious harmonies (chords of A and E major) until the high point of the melody, when Chopin allows one piquant sideways move to a melting seventh chord with F sharp in the bass. No. 8 in F sharp minor is a brilliant example of Chopin’s use of rapid piano figuration to provide ‘atmosphere’ around a melodic line. On the page, the notation looks fearsome. Approached gently, it reveals itself to be a fascinating task for the right hand in particular. Most of the fast figuration lies within the natural span of the hand (that is, an octave) and can be played without awkward stretching. A dark, turbulent line is played mainly by the thumb, while the other fingers swiftly and quietly explore surrounding harmonies, rather in the way that an artist might use cross-hatching to give shade and depth to an outline. With repeating rhythms and a consistent texture throughout, Chopin constructs a piece rich in harmonic nuance and satisfying in narrative arc. No. 9 in E major again seems to echo the dotted-note ‘funeral march’ motif, here used in a mellow piece scored mainly for the lower registers of the piano. In the final phrase, the semiquaver in the dotted-note motif tightens to become a tense demisemiquaver. No. 10 in C sharp minor intriguingly alternates two bars of flying triplet semiquavers with two bars of slow-moving chords in the bass. Just as we think the pattern is completed after four iterations, Chopin adds a painful octave A in the right hand and repeats the two slow bars. In no. 11 in B major, Chopin ripples along in a cheerful Vivace, its regular phrases extended near the end in a pleasingly irregular final phrase. The same uncanny ability to ratchet up tension through tiny changes to melody and harmony is found in no. 12 in 115


G sharp minor and no. 14 in E flat minor, which seems to look ahead to the finale of his B flat minor piano sonata with its restless undercurrents of almost atonal motion. Around this point in the preludes, the duration of the pieces tends to become longer. No. 13 in F sharp major, with its three-part structure, could almost be one of Chopin’s nocturnes. No. 15 in D flat major was later christened ‘Raindrop’ by the German conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, in homage to a description that Chopin’s then partner George Sand (the pen name of the female writer Aurore Dupin) left us in her memoirs. In the winter of 1838–9 they were staying in a monastery in Valldemossa in Majorca. One rainy evening, Sand returned from town to find Chopin upset after a bad dream. ‘He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast.’ Many have heard those heavy drops in the balefully repeated G sharps of the middle section. Under the beautiful melody we hear in the opening and closing sections, repeated A flats (another way of notating G sharp) are threaded through the left-hand line, skilfully knitting the whole piece together. No. 16 in B flat minor could be an étude; it’s one of the most technically difficult preludes with its hugely complicated right-hand line driven by pulsing rhythmic figures in the bass. No. 17 in A flat major, the longest prelude, was Clara Schumann’s favourite. A melody line dips and weaves over pulsing repeated chords in the inner parts. In style it is rather like one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, though interestingly Mendelssohn himself is said to have conceded, ‘It is something which I could never have written.’ No. 18 in F minor, in mood akin to the famous ‘Revolutionary’ étude, demands that the two hands surmount complicated chromatic runs in octaves, each run faster than the last. No. 19 in E flat major could also have been included in the Études; it is the other candidate for ‘most technically difficult prelude’ with its enormous stretches, particularly for the left hand. No. 20 in C minor is the imposing ‘chord’ prelude, originally just four loud bars contrasted with four soft bars; Chopin later added an echo in four even softer bars. In no. 21 in B flat major, the right hand sings a lovely melody while the left hand ties itself in graceful knots. In the latter phase of the piece the right hand, 116


while continuing to intone the melody, joins the left in its intricate task. No. 22 in G minor throws down a challenge in octaves to the pianist’s left hand while the right hand provides offbeat commentary. No. 23 in F major switches the challenge to the right hand, the left hand sometimes attempting a melody and at other times joining in with the rippling effect. No. 24 in D minor is one of the most emotionally powerful. Over a swirling bass, seemingly designed for a giant hand, the right hand sings a passionate aria which feels as though it might have been inspired by one of the Polish epic poems that Chopin loved. In the first half of the prelude, ecstatic runs soar into the high treble. In the second half, as harmonies twist, they plunge from the sky into the bass. The prelude ends with three despairing runs, the third one – marked fortississimo – plunging right down into the deepest bass where three long minim Ds stand like sentinels barring the way to anything further.

31. Mazurka in B flat major, op. 7 no. 1 (and others) Chopin’s Mazurkas occupy a special place among the types of piano composition he made his own. Polonaises, nocturnes, waltzes, scherzos – these tended to emanate from certain periods in his life, but his Mazurkas go right through from his teenage years to his (perhaps) very last composition. They were intimately tied to his love of Poland in a way which never lost its power. The Mazurka was an old Polish dance in triple time, often with a pair of notes, a dotted rhythm or a triplet on the first beat, followed by two crotchets. Usually it has a rhythmic stress on the second or third beat of the bar. In folk style, one or other beat is not only stressed but elongated, making the three beats seem more like four, a phenomenon remarked upon by people who heard Chopin play his own Mazurkas. (The matter is complicated, because some of his listeners thought he elongated the first beat, whereas Chopin himself maintained that he did not, or at least that he was playing in triple time.) To notate this type of spontaneous freedom was outside the scope of conventional notation, and Chopin settled for a straightforward triple time, which, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Various forms of mazurka are danced in different regions of Poland, but they are 117


all composed of short sections (generally eight bars long) and often have a ‘drone bass’ section in the middle, evoking the sound of the Polish bagpipe which accompanied these dances. A measure of the mazurka’s importance is that the Polish national anthem, composed in 1797, is a type of mazurka. When Chopin was fourteen, he went on holiday to the Szafarnia region of Poland, from where he wrote his parents humorous accounts of village goings-on in the so-called Szafarnia Courier, a journal compiled by one Mr ‘Pichon’ (an anagram of Chopin’s name). From the Courier we learn that Chopin heard rural mazurkas being sung and played, and noted down some of the tunes. We also learn that he heard and befriended some Jewish musicians, whose klezmer-style music may have influenced him. The teenage Chopin wrote a couple of his own Mazurkas too, revising them later and including them in his first published set. Shortly after Chopin left Warsaw in 1830 to try to make a name for himself in the capitals of Europe, a Polish uprising against the Russian Empire was crushed by the Russian army. The Tsar decreed that Poland would lose its autonomy and become part of the Empire. Warsaw came under severe restrictions; its university was closed, books and plays were censored, and police spies were rumoured to be everywhere, making people afraid of talking openly with one another. Chopin was desolate, but he did not return. From Vienna he continued his journey westward, arriving in Paris in 1831. There he made a wide circle of acquaintances amongst Poles as well as cultured and aristocratic Parisians (‘I hobnob with ambassadors, princesses and ministers’). Exiled Poles were viewed with great sympathy in Paris at the time, and Chopin’s own performances of his Mazurkas were admired as much for their patriotic pride and yearning as for their musical distinction. Clearly the Mazurkas meant a lot to Chopin as well, for he kept refining the form as the years went on. Although his Mazurkas were in triple time with the usual rhythms and sections, Chopin said his Mazurkas were ‘not for dancing’. His interest was not in transmitting the folk music for its own sake; he meant to sublimate it, making it a vehicle for nostalgic contemplation. The subtle poetry of his musical language, the beauty of his melodies and their decorations, the quiet dynamic of many of his Mazurkas and their aura of melancholy took them out of the ballroom and into the realm of 118


art. Chopin was not politically active in any overt way, but the patriotic longing embodied in his Mazurkas certainly helped to spread awareness of the Polish cause and keep it alive in the hearts of his listeners, as Schumann recognised when he described Chopin’s Mazurkas as ‘cannons buried in flowers’. One of Chopin’s first Mazurkas, in B flat major, op. 7 no. 1, was an instant success, played all over Europe and even in Warsaw, where it was known as ‘The Favourite’. Irresistibly tuneful and with exotic-sounding intervals of falling sevenths and ninths in its main melody, it also shows a subtle skill in creating phrases which cross four-bar boundaries to make intriguing longer units. In the middle is the famous ‘sotto voce’ (in a whisper) section where, over a most unusual drone bass pulsing away on G flat and D flat, we hear a haunting modal melody with a distinctly Eastern flavour. Contrasted in character is the beautiful slow Mazurka in A minor, op. 17 no. 4, possibly one of the teenage compositions he revised. Officially it is in A minor, but its opening seems to hover somewhere between that and F major, and its melody constantly slips between the cracks as if seeking to escape from A minor, an impression intensified by the delicate decorative passages. Again, the middle section brings in the bagpipe drone. Here we seem to have settled into a cheery A major for thirty bars, but the complacency is broken by a wrenching chord that returns us suddenly to the melancholy reprise. Now we see Chopin’s skill at writing codas, for over a repeated A in the bass he writes a series of sadly drooping phrases with chromatic harmonies, with high grace notes which plunge an octave and a half to the melody note they are decorating, an effect almost like a gulp or sob. After an apparent close in the home key, we drift back into the twilight region where the piece began, ending with a pause on a floating chord of F. This effect of ending quietly in mid-air may have influenced Robert Schumann, who uses it quite often in his piano music (e.g. in ‘Child Falling Asleep’ in Kinderszenen). Yet another type of Mazurka, in B flat minor, op. 24 no. 4, is a proud and vigorous dance which could be mistaken for a waltz were it not for some of its internal sections, where the stress on the second or third beat confirms it to be a Mazurka. Chopin again uses chromatic movement to blur the sense of key, for example in the opening bars where two melodic lines move slowly towards one 119


another in the treble without a bass to clarify where we are. At the ends of some phrases are sudden loud heel-clicking outbursts of the type we associate more with the Polonaise. In the middle section, ‘Legato’, a very Eastern-sounding melody with plaintive intervals leads on to an episode which wanders between distant keys. The coda veers between B flat major and minor, seeming to commit to the major key until the final two bars, where a lonely melody casts doubt on the conclusion. The D major, op. 33 no. 2, is one of the most popular and folk-like Mazurkas, its outer sections employing a charming ‘echo’ effect whereby eight bars loud are followed by the same eight bars soft. This leads into a graceful waltz-like section in B flat whose second half is a fascinating rhythmic pattern; over intriguing bass harmonies, the right hand plays an oscillating figure with the same note, D, always at the top of the chords, and folk-like ‘snaps’ on the third beats of alternate bars. After the reprise is another unusual coda; as the bass pulses away on D, pairs of notes dance pianissimo down a modal scale in the treble, accelerating and then decelerating as they sink into the bass register. After they come to rest on D major, and the pedal goes down to catch everything in its resonance, the dance ends with a startling gesture: a high modal scale flies upwards over a crescendo, like a bird which has suddenly escaped from its cage. The C sharp minor, op. 63 no. 3, is a pensive and beautiful piece with subtle phrase lengths and telling beats of silence. Its outer sections are melodic, its middle section more rhythmical, as though danced by a group rather than a soloist. In the last twelve bars there is an unusual instance of a canon at one beat’s distance, both parts being played by the right hand (not easy, because the intervals are wide), perhaps to imitate one dancer following the movements of another a little way apart. In a historic recording, the pianist Paderewski (who later became Prime Minister of Poland) achieves this effect most tenderly by displacing the lower line slightly so that it stands out from the one above it. Finally there is the F minor, op. 68 no. 4, an unfinished and hard-to-decipher sketch found after Chopin died by Jane Stirling, the Scottish pianist who studied with him and became devoted to him. The opus numbers after op. 65 were earlier works, published posthumously; the date of this mazurka’s composition is uncer120


tain, but its character lends itself to speculation that it may be one of his last works. The whole piece is to be played ‘sotto voce’ (whispering). Its haunting two-bar phrases give the impression that they are sinking gradually down through tiny chromatic increments, vainly reaching upwards at the ends of certain phrases. In the middle, there is a turn for the better as the music finds its way into A major for a few bars of waltz-like dancing, but soon the melancholy mood returns and the sense of weary drooping is resumed. Perhaps there was to be a substantial middle section with rhythmical drones, but we shall never know. In keeping with the mystery of its date and its absence of conclusion, some editions indicate that one should circle round and play it again ‘senza fine’ (without ending).

ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810–1856) 32. Kinderszenen, op. 15 Robert Schumann is in many ways the model of the Romantic composer – living in the world of his imagination, poetic, impractical, obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings. He was inspired by literature, devoted to his favourite writers, moved by his rivals’ music. And his personal life was also thoroughly ‘Romantic’. While lodging in the house of his piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, he fell in love with Wieck’s teenage daughter Clara, herself a brilliant pianist. They became secretly engaged, but when Clara’s father found out about it, he banned them from seeing one another. For several years they struggled to win his approval, but realising he would never give it, they went to court to obtain permission to marry. Later, their married life was to end sadly, with Robert Schumann’s decline into mental illness, but during the period before their marriage, when he wrote his major solo piano works, his imaginative life was at white heat. Schumann gives the sense that he is inviting us to share his deepest secrets and willing to make himself vulnerable for the sake of truthful self-disclosure, freely displaying his weaknesses as well as his strengths. He can conjure up almost better than anyone else an atmosphere of heart-to-heart intimacy. At the same time, he can give the maddening impression of what today might be called ‘oversharing’, 121


trying his listeners’ patience by going doggedly round and round his musical material as though ensnared by it, like a fairy-tale hero in a cursed forest. Now and then he seems to burst through the thicket of repetitive thoughts with an idea which goes straight to the heart. It is characteristic of Schumann’s piano music that he seems to have to fight, sometimes for pages, to achieve these moments of piercing beauty. For his fans, these moments are the more precious for being hard-won. His struggles with mental illness, mood swings and depression were a source of shame and distress to his nearest and dearest, yet the feeling he manages to impart through his music – that he is determined to be honest about the turmoil in his heart – has brought him new admirers in our own age, which has more understanding of and sympathy for mental health issues and the part they play in creativity. Were he to be making his career today, his ‘visions’ and his battle with mood swings and depression might well be the subject of admiring documentaries. Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood) is the way that many young pianists encounter the music of Robert Schumann, although in fact these thirteen little cameos are not specifically designed for children to play, but are recollections of childish games, worries, fantasies and fireside moments (‘Kinderszenen’ literally means ‘children scenes’). Clara Schumann, who was not yet Robert’s wife at the time he wrote them, remarked that Robert ‘sometimes reminded her of a child’, an observation which may have acquired a darker colour as time went on and Robert’s mental health issues became more apparent. In the course of piano lessons, many people have learned a few of the pieces, particularly no. 7, the wonderful ‘Träumerei’ (Dreaming), but the whole set is not as well known or as often heard in concert as one might imagine. The pieces are composed with tenderness and delicacy, their conciseness making them more akin to Schumann’s songs than to his longer piano pieces, where obsessive repetition or over-long elaboration can dull the charm of his initial ideas. One might imagine that it was the evocative titles (‘Pleading Child’, ‘Important Event’, etc) that concentrated Schumann’s imagination when he was writing Kinderszenen, but in fact he claimed he invented the titles only afterwards. Clara seemed to 122


agree, telling their daughter Eugenie that ‘your father thought up the titles to the pieces only when they were finished. They are very apt . . . but they are not necessary.’ The Kinderszenen were written in 1838 and published in 1839 when Robert and Clara’s marriage was still a year away. No. 1, ‘Of Strange Lands and People’. Clara claimed that in this piece ‘you feel yourself completely transported to foreign lands’, but this may have been wishful thinking; in fact the charming little piece is notable for its simple harmonies and phrase lengths. It does not seem to attempt to evoke any kind of ‘strangeness’. What then was Schumann thinking about? It has occurred to me that there may be a clue in the opening phrase of the melody. During the time that he was separated from Clara, Robert mused on Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), which must have seemed painfully relevant to him, and sometimes quoted it in his own music (such as the wonderful Fantasy in C major, op. 17). If you take the first five notes of Schumann’s Kinderszenen and play them backwards, you get the opening of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. Is this deliberate? My instinct is that it is just the kind of thing that Schumann would have delighted in devising, but would also have delighted in keeping to himself. Beethoven’s poet sits on a hill, gazing into ‘the misty blueness’, far from his beloved. Perhaps Schumann imagines the ‘strange lands and people’ surrounding his own distant beloved: not ‘strange’ in the sense of odd, but perhaps rather ‘estranged’. This opening motif of no. 1 is heard in a number of places throughout the set. No. 2, ‘Curious Story’, is another piece which seems less intriguing than its title. Perhaps he really did make the title up afterwards. It’s a gentle dance, almost a minuet in feeling. No. 3, ‘Hasche-Mann’ (a game of ‘tag’). The little accents every two bars seem to show the action of a chasing child who manages to catch and ‘tag’ another. The running notes depict the scurrying little feet. No. 4, ‘Pleading Child’. Here, the opening phrase is clearly a variant of the theme in ‘Of Strange Lands and People’, though now harmonised in D major. In the pairs of falling notes, do we hear snuffling, sobbing? At the end, the melody is left hanging on the high G over an unresolved chord. Interestingly, Chopin does 123


the same thing at the end of his F major prelude. In Schumann’s version the thin, high note seems to summon up a picture of the child saying, ‘. . . please?’ No. 5, ‘Quite Happy’. Cleverly, this resolves the ‘question’ posed at the end of no. 4. The child has been given what they wanted and is now content. No. 6, ‘Important Event’. It’s easy to imagine the dressing-up box and the small king parading about feeling important. Once again, the opening phrase could be considered a reference to the theme in ‘Of Strange Lands and People’. No. 7, ‘Träumerei’ (Dreaming). This gem of a piece has captured hearts for generations. It is a wonderful piece of construction. There are six phrases, all of which begin in the same way, but bend this way and that at the end of the phrases, taking the music into different keys, sometimes opening it up, sometimes taking it into a sad place, sometimes hinting at consolation. The beauty of Schumann’s choice of harmony for the high treble note A at the climax of the piece, in the final phrase with the pause on the chord, never loses its ability to melt the listener’s heart. For me this piece sometimes seems like a lovely vase of flowers with six (or eight, if you take the repeat) stems inclining gracefully in different directions. No. 8, ‘By the Fireside’. A cheery domestic scene. The teenage Clara made the comment, ‘It’s so cosy, it could only be a German fireside. It could never be so cosy in a French fireside!’ No. 9, ‘Knight of the Stick Horse’. In some editions this has been translated as ‘Knight of the Rocking-Horse’, but a Steckenpferd is actually a ‘stick horse’, a wooden stick topped with a horse’s head, astride which the small rider gallops about, usually neighing and making clip-clop noises. Galloping horses figure in a lot of Schumann’s piano music (for example in the final piece of Kreisleriana). No. 10, ‘Almost too Serious’ is something an adult would say about a child. Who is almost too serious: the composer himself? In a set of pieces largely based around G and D major, this excursion into the distant key of G sharp minor is a step away from normality. The melody is out of step with the bass all the way through; a semiquaver late, dragging behind the bass. The dragging syncopation seems to show the child’s reluctance to ‘be in the present’. In the last six bars, a phrase is delineated in the treble and then in the bass. Is this phrase a minor version of the ‘Traümerei’ theme, suggesting that the dream has turned sad? 124


No. 11, ‘Frightening’: the dotted rhythm of the opening theme recalls a similar motif (in the same key) of Chopin’s A minor prelude, op. 28 no. 2 (and indeed the famous motif of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’), but in fact Kinderszenen was published a year before Chopin’s Preludes. The atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty is appropriate in a little piece about frightening oneself (or others). The ‘Schneller’ (Faster) sections suggest anxious heartbeats, feet running away. No. 12, ‘Child Falling Asleep’: the treble voice shadows the bass line at half a bar’s distance. Could this be an example of the Doppelgänger, the shadow figure who trails you, a figure popularised by Schumann’s favourite author, Jean Paul? When falling asleep one might more easily feel the disassociation of different parts of one’s mind. The piece ends tantalisingly on a chord of A minor, without resolving into the expected E minor cadence. This is the last of the ‘children scenes’; the next is the poet himself speaking. No. 13, ‘The Poet Speaks’: The final portrait is an example of how brilliant Schumann was at ‘postludes’, or afterthoughts which change the atmosphere and give us a new perspective, as he often does with the piano postludes in his Lieder. Schumann steps out of the ‘child’ persona and speaks to us as the creative artist – or perhaps as the child grown into the artist. It seems significant that he chooses to end the cycle of pieces with the idea of speaking, not singing. Let’s not forget that Schumann described himself as ‘a poet as much as a musician’. Is he the poet? The poet seems reluctant to speak, or not confident of what to say. The phrases are short, sometimes fragmented, occasionally pausing on a sorrowful harmony. The opening bars reappear a year later in the first song of his cycle Frauenliebe und -leben, bars 7–9. Do they hold some message for Clara? In the song they are set (in the second verse) to the words ‘möchte ich lieber weinen’ (I would rather weep). There’s an important little cadenza or ‘recitative’, printed in a smaller font presumably to indicate that it is some sort of inset moment, like a flashback in a film. The phrase Schumann uses here is a quote from his own fiercely optimistic piano piece ‘Aufschwung’ (Upswing) from the Fantasiestücke, op. 12. But here the character of the theme is very different: no longer energetic, but quiet and remote. Has the optimism gone? The quiet opening is reprised, but the phrases are short and tentative; the first-beat rests in the final bars leave a lingering sense of insecurity. 125


33. Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54 Schumann sketched several piano concertos in the 1830s, but his first publicly performed attempt at a concerto was the one-movement Phantasie for piano and orchestra, premiered in 1841 in Leipzig with his wife Clara as the soloist. Schumann was, however, unable to interest a publisher in this one-movement work, and eventually Clara persuaded him to expand it into a traditional threemovement piano concerto which might prove more commercial. He accepted the challenge and the full concerto was premiered, again with Clara as the soloist, in Dresden in August 1845. This time it was warmly acclaimed by music critics, with the Dresdner Abend-Zeitung even going so far as to recognise that the somewhat introverted treatment of the solo part might represent an interesting sort of evolution of the piano concerto form. The piece went on to become one of the most popular of Romantic piano concertos. In the era of recording, it has often been paired with Grieg’s piano concerto (also in A minor) which clearly shows the influence of Schumann’s. In fact, it is noteworthy that Schumann’s piano concerto has remained so popular, because it is not a traditional ‘show-off ’ piece for the pianist. In some respects it is more like a chamber work, the piano sharing the honours with the orchestral instruments, sometimes even receding into the background to accompany them. As with so much of Schumann’s piano writing, it can be awkward and intricate to play without giving the pianist the opportunity to be admired as an obvious virtuoso. At first glance it seems surprising that Schumann even wanted to write a piano concerto when his impulse was at least as much to express his longing for the inward life, but many listeners have been touched by the lyrical nature of this concerto. The challenge for the pianist is how to make it come across in the concert hall without falsifying its intimate nature. The first movement, the heart of his original inspiration, has been described as a struggle between two elements, one energetic (the opening bars), the other dreamy and wistful (the famous A minor theme which appears in bar 4). These two elements may be examples of the fictional characters Florestan (the impulsive extrovert) and Eusebius (the dreamer) whom Schumann invented to personify



the contrasting parts of his own personality, and the tension between them was clearly something he experienced as an everyday reality. The imaginary Florestan and Eusebius stalk his compositions. He sometimes marked individual themes with ‘F’ or ‘E’ to denote which side of his character was on display. The famous lyrical theme of the first movement is, characteristically, heard first from the orchestra and not from the piano. It bears some resemblance to a theme from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828), later quoted by Elgar in the thirteenth of his Enigma Variations. A tribute to Schumann’s friend and fellow composer, perhaps, or an unconscious allusion to one of his pieces? Equally, it could be an allusion to Clara, for the notes C-A-A (the first, third and fifth letters of her name) are clearly the basis of Schumann’s theme. Schumann sometimes nicknamed his wife ‘Chiara’, the Italian version of her name, and as the note B is known in German as H, that would supply one more letter of Clara’s name in the piano concerto’s main theme: C-H-A-A. At any rate, the ‘Clara’ theme is very skilfully used throughout the movement, appearing in various guises – for example in the pensive middle section in A flat major; transformed into a hopeful A major to launch an animated passage of elaboration on that theme; wreathed in trills during the cadenza; or speeded up into a clipped march-like rhythm in the ‘allegro molto’ coda. The second movement, which Schumann preferred to be described in the programme as the prelude to the finale, has the character of an intimate conversation between piano and orchestra. Despite a more lyrical middle section, in which once again the orchestra gets to announce the new melody, the whole movement seems inconclusive, as though it is an interlude. The lengthy finale, Allegro Vivace, has an almost ceaseless sweep of piano arpeggios which are conceived largely as texture and background to what is going on in the orchestra. Originally, Schumann gave a puzzlingly slow metronome mark of 72 to the bar. It has become traditional to ignore this and take the movement at a faster, jollier clip to give it more élan, but this makes the pages of arpeggios very taxing for the soloist; they should sound like joyful little floods of harmony, but the complicated fingering hampers this effect. In the middle of the movement comes a section where Schumann introduces a new episode, still 127


notated in 3/4 time but with the dotted-rhythm theme written across the bar lines as if it is in 3/2 time. Looking at the notation, it seems clear that Schumann was trying to create a delightful rhythmic swing by juxtaposing the ongoing tripletime dance rhythm and the new, stately dotted rhythm which marches cross-wise against the dance in two-bar units. The frisson of two-against-three is available largely to those who can see the score, alas, because without knowing how things are notated, the innocent ear just hears a simple change into a crisp, almost marching three-time at this point, and the sense of a whirling waltz is lost. In performance, I have tried by body language to indicate that the waltz rhythm is going on in parallel like a ghostly descant, but have never been sure that it is possible to convey Schumann’s intention successfully.

34. Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor, op. 63 Amongst Schumann’s chamber music, the Trio in D minor, op. 63, holds a special place in my heart. His piano quintet is more popular, but although I am fond of it too, I have always felt it is a little four-square in its predictable phrase lengths and unvarying textures. In choosing a chamber work to represent Schumann, therefore, I have allowed myself to select the one which seems to me to best represent him at his most daring and imaginative. Schumann’s characteristic writing for piano trio often gives the pianist the role of providing texture, energy, rhythmic drive as a counterpart to the melodic string lines. The piano is continuously active and for much of the time the three instruments play together, creating a density of texture which runs the risk of seeming thick and suffocating. In this music we can hear that Schumann was an earnest student of the music of Bach, drawing on the inspiration of Bach’s intricate counterpoint to create his own complexity. The pianist’s task is a tricky one, for they must find a way to provide heft without allowing the piano part to become overbearing. There are moments where the piano is the hero of the narrative, but these are fairly rare. As in Schumann’s Piano Concerto, the piano writing is technically difficult without being the sort of ebullient virtuoso writing which delights the audience. The piano trios are, consequently, not celebrity vehicles for pianists, but rather opportunities to weave 128


atmosphere and texture, and to provide light and shade in the right places. It is perhaps because of such challenges that the piano trios were neglected for many years and are probably still less well known than they should be. The opening page, with its tortuous theme almost like a twentieth-century ‘note-row’ which aims to use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, presents some kind of enigma one longs to resolve. Marked ‘Mit Energie und Leidenschaft’ (With energy and passion), it flings the listener immediately into the torrent. The role of the piano here (as in many parts of the piece) is to create the dark, swirling textures on which the string lines are borne along. Much of the first movement is a tussle between the dark, swirling, sinuous lines of the opening and the clipped dotted rhythms of a contrasting theme. Halfway through the movement, without warning, comes one of Schumann’s most startling inventions: a section marked ‘Tempo 1, nur ruhiger’ (Tempo 1, only calmer). In the high treble, marked ‘ppp’ (extremely quiet) and with the ‘soft’ pedal down, the piano plays ethereal triplets which hint at a simple melodic line. Against this, the cello (joined by the violin) plays a kind of descant with widely spaced intervals which make it seem more like a line written for the French horn than the cello. The cello is instructed to play ‘Am Steg’, with the bow near to the bridge, producing a strange, glassy, whistling sound. Nothing prepares us for this drastic change of atmosphere, which appears like a vision, almost a hallucination. One moment we are basking in the glorious Romantic swirl of the writing, and the next it is as if we have been thrust a couple of centuries forward to space-age music. It is this kind of inspiration which makes Schumann’s music perpetually intriguing. The second movement, a lively scherzo-and-trio structure, is a good example of the sort of piano writing which is technically hard but not designed to show off. The bouncy dotted rhythms, which contain many repeated notes, require great energy to play crisply at the prescribed speed. On Schumann’s lighter piano keyboard, they would still have been tricky, but on the modern piano they are daunting. It is a mark of Schumann’s skill with variation of texture that the long melodic lines of the Trio section seem like new themes, but they are in fact just a smoothing-out of the dotted rhythms we heard in the opening section. 129


The slow movement, ‘Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung’ (Slow, with inward feeling), is one of Schumann’s finest accomplishments. Violin and piano engage in a sorrowful duet in which it is not clear who has the principal line. The piano seems to feel its way forward in the dark. The violin, following a step behind, offers sad comments in fragmented phrases, as if it is too burdened with emotion to string together a whole sentence. In the tenth bar, where the cello enters, Schumann offers an unobtrusive stroke of genius. Just as our attention is drawn to the consoling cello line, Schumann begins a counterpoint in the bass of the piano part which is a complete reprise of the whole violin part in the first ten bars. This is not at all obvious to the listener, and I confess that I had been playing the piece for some time before I noticed what was going on. It seems typical of Schumann to devise something so ingenious and then leave it lying quietly there to be found or not. The middle section of the slow movement, ‘Bewegter’ (with more movement), seems like a lifting into the air after the heavy, tragic atmosphere of the opening. Here the three players seem to weave together, rather than pursuing their sad separate courses. But the vision fades: the weary opening section returns in condensed form. Now it’s the piano which utters the final statement of the opening violin line, but with a twist; in the penultimate bar the piano writhes upwards with a painful recollection of the opening theme of the first movement. The fiery fourth movement, couched unexpectedly in D major, is a strange blend of straightforward energy and optimism with odd, mercurial effects which seem to recall the curious atmosphere of the ‘nur ruhiger’ passage in the middle of the first movement. Sometimes it seems as though Schumann had instruments other than violin, cello and piano in mind. The piano writing in the B minor section, for example, so tricky to play pianissimo with its fast and wide oscillations, feels as if it might be mimicking strange woodwind instruments. Likewise in the string parts there are many non-melodic effects, again like horn calls, or foghorns, or lights appearing and fading in the gloom. The world of fairy tales, of woodland spirits, feels very near. Perhaps he had in mind a scene from one of Jean Paul’s novels? In the coda, which lasts for several pages of the piano score, Schumann gives the instruction ‘nach und nach schneller’ (faster and faster). As the tempo is 130


already fast and fiery, the players are presented with the challenge of grading an acceleration over seventy-five bars. Is this an instance of Schumann’s lack of practicality? It requires considerable dexterity, as well as ensemble skills, on the part of the players to achieve an actual accelerando from the beginning of the coda to the very end. Sometimes it feels scarcely possible, but there is a sense that Schumann wanted to give the impression of everything spinning out of control.

CLARA SCHUMANN (1819–1896) 35. Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 7 Clara Wieck, who became Clara Schumann when she married the composer Robert Schumann, was one of music history’s most impressive women musicians. She was a child prodigy, taught the piano by her ambitious father Friedrich Wieck, who arranged concert tours across Europe for her. She wrote and performed her own piano music from a young age, earning compliments from Liszt and Goethe. Against her father’s wishes she married the volatile Robert Schumann and supported him lovingly in his composing career, even though he had made it clear from the outset that he expected her to set aside her own creative work in order to run the household and look after the children, of whom there were eventually eight. ‘You should live for nothing but yourself and your house and your husband, and just wait and see how I want to make you forget the artist – no, the wife stands even higher than the artist, and if I can only ensure that you would have nothing more to do with the general public, then my fondest wish would have been fulfilled’, he wrote to her the year before their wedding. We may wonder that after years of public acclaim she was prepared to commit to marrying on these terms, but Schumann’s views were typical of their time, and had Clara confided any doubts to those around her she might well have found that they also took it for granted she should devote herself to domesticity once she was married. At first, Robert and Clara both kept composing, but their diaries make it clear that Clara’s confidence in herself as a composer was gradually worn down. Although they had agreed to have two pianos in the house (one for her, one for him), Robert 131


found he could not think while Clara was playing, so she gave up practising when he was working in his study. Somehow, her piano technique was well enough established to remain at her service. When Robert started showing signs of depression and mental instability, she supported the family by playing piano recitals. Even when Robert was confined to a mental asylum she kept on touring as a soloist, and after his death her income from concerts made life possible for her and their eight children, for whom she was now solely responsible. She gave up composing when Schumann became ill, saying despondently, ‘I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to?’ When Clara was only twelve, her father took her to Paris where she played to the twenty-two-year-old Polish composer Chopin, not long arrived in that city. Chopin was delighted with her playing and sent her a manuscript copy of his E minor piano concerto, saying he looked forward to hearing it played by someone so talented. Clara must have been sufficiently inspired by Chopin’s concerto to start writing one of her own, her A minor piano concerto, op. 7. It began life as a one-movement concert piece which Robert Schumann (then a piano student of Clara’s father) helped her to orchestrate. Later she made it the final section of a three-movement concerto, adding a first and second movement. In November 1835, shortly before her sixteenth birthday, she was the soloist in the premiere in Leipzig, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the orchestra. The key of A minor is the same one that her husband was to use for his own much more famous piano concerto (interestingly, his went through a similar process of being developed from a single-movement concert fantasy to a threemovement concerto). Clara’s concerto sounds like an innocent tribute to Chopin, with its ‘operatic’ writing for the piano, its delicate decorative lines for the soloist and its elegant harmonic sidesteps into unexpected keys. Her piano writing is clearly based on her own astonishingly virtuosic piano technique, which made light of octave passages and chords written over enormous intervals of a tenth (she did have large hands). Octave passages (often in both hands) are a mainstay of the work, written so frequently that we must assume she didn’t consider them especially difficult. 132


As with Chopin’s E minor concerto, it is clear that the piano interested Clara much more than the orchestral accompaniment, which is sparingly written, with all the brightest musical limelight given to the soloist. Intriguingly, the young Clara has unified the three movements by writing a principal theme which appears, with slight variation, in every movement. Each movement blends skilfully into the next. Clara’s most striking innovation is the slow movement, a rhapsody for solo piano (without orchestra) which introduces a solo cello into the final section, so that the two instruments sing a heartfelt duet. Could this have been where her friend Johannes Brahms got the idea for the cello solo in the slow movement of his own B flat piano concerto? Clara’s final movement is a Polonaise, probably another homage to Chopin. Clara Schumann wrote many attractive compositions for solo piano, and delightful chamber music works such as her Piano Trio and her Romances for violin and piano. But perhaps she was never so confident of her own voice and her own right to compose as she was when she wrote her youthful piano concerto. At that time she was a celebrated pianist commanding high fees, travelling all over Europe and being praised by famous people; she was a teenager just beginning to fall in love with her father’s piano student Robert Schumann, and the world was her oyster.

FRANZ LISZT (1811–1886) 36. Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178 The life and career of Franz Liszt provide one of the most colourful chapters in the history of piano music. He is now principally known as a composer, but as a concert pianist he achieved staggering success. As a young man, Liszt had been entranced by the stage manner of the violinist Paganini, who inspired him to try for similar fame as a pianist. He worked hard on his virtuoso technique. Piano virtuosi were popular, but Liszt created a personality cult and a bravura style of performance which eclipsed the others. He more or less invented the model of a concert played by a single performer (before him, mixed programmes with several 133


performers were the norm). He was handsome and charismatic, played magnificently, was an inspired improviser, made thrilling arrangements of other people’s music, and performed his own pieces so theatrically that some listeners used to faint with emotion. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘How powerful, how shattering was his mere physical appearance.’ Before a concert Liszt mingled with the audience, charming them with his witty remarks. He had a semicircle of chairs placed around the piano on stage so that illustrious guests could sit near him and converse with him between pieces. He added extra bits of his own invention to the pieces he was playing, improvising cadenzas, tremolos, double octaves and trills even to iconic pieces like Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. He brought his silk gloves on stage and threw them down to be fought over by audience members. Women were said to carry his discarded cigar butts in their cleavages. When he broke piano strings, as he often did in his performances, people collected the broken strings and had them made into bracelets. There was even a phase where Liszt invited listeners to write a question for him (on any topic) on a slip of paper and put it into a hat, from which questions would be drawn out for the great man to answer from the stage. Clearly he was regarded as having more than musical authority. In fact, Liszt’s touring years as a showman were concentrated into a decade between 1839 and 1848, after which he decided to accept his partner Princess Caroline von Sayn-Wittgenstein’s advice to devote himself to the more serious task of composition. He moved to Weimar, took up a post as Kapellmeister, retreated from his career as a virtuoso to compose, and only played concerts when he felt like it. He became a piano teacher, attracting a circle of gifted students whom he earnestly discouraged from doing things for effect (cynics have suggested that he just didn’t like the idea of anyone else emulating his success). He purged his life of frivolous elements, eventually returning to his childhood dream of taking holy orders. He became a ‘minor canon’ in 1865, after which he was known as the Abbé Liszt. Liszt’s music has always been controversial. For some, it is emptily virtuosic and annoyingly melodramatic. For others, it is imaginative and innovative, with a subtle use of harmony which probably influenced Wagner and that looks ahead to 134


Debussy and Ravel. Some pianists love Liszt’s music so much that they devote a large part of their concert repertoire to it. Others – uncertain if the means justify the effect – can never work up the motivation to learn all those notes. Musicologists have always admired Liszt’s mastery of ‘thematic transformation’, the way he reuses one theme so that it finds new life in another character or tempo. There are many examples in this sonata, none more striking than the way the menacing repeated-note figure in the bass near the beginning is later slowed down into the dreamily beautiful contrasting theme marked ‘cantando espressivo’. For me, this transformation is a stroke of genius and the best thing in the sonata. In 1839, Robert Schumann dedicated his wonderful Fantasy in C major, op. 17, to Liszt. Liszt wanted to return the favour, but had nothing he felt was worthy. Eventually in 1853 he completed his one Piano Sonata, which he dedicated to Schumann. Sadly, in 1854 a copy arrived at the Schumann household shortly after Robert had been committed to the mental asylum in Endenich. Clara Schumann received the score and had her friend Johannes Brahms play it to her. She found ‘nothing but sheer racket – not a single healthy idea, everything confused . . . And now I’ve got to thank him for it!’ Of course, it could be that at that particular time Clara Schumann was emotionally exhausted and over-alert to signs of mental instability. Nevertheless, her opinion was shared by Brahms and by quite a few leading German musicians. Despite this rocky start, Liszt’s sonata soon began to gather admirers and has never been out of the limelight. Liszt himself liked playing it to visitors in Weimar, but always made a point of putting the score on the piano so that everyone could see it had been properly written down and was not one of the stormy improvisations of his younger years. In fact, the appearance of the manuscript does suggest that Liszt improvised it for himself and hurriedly notated it before he forgot what he had played. The sonata lasts around half an hour and is played without a break, though it does subdivide into several ‘movements’ like those of a conventional sonata, or perhaps like a gigantic first-movement structure (theme + elaboration, contrasting theme + elaboration, development of this material, reprise with augmentation of the original elements). Liszt never declared whether it was inspired by a specific narrative, but many people have tried to find one that fits – ranging from the story of Adam 135


and Eve in the Bible to Goethe’s Faust and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It opens with sinister premonitions, moves on to heroic outbursts, grandiose declarations, and lyrical episodes of great beauty. Weaving these ingredients together, it moves through brilliant pyrotechnics and stormy fugato episodes to a reprise in which the main themes are ennobled and glorified. The manuscript seems to show that Liszt first planned a triumphant ending, but his second thought was inspired: he ends with three long quiet chords whose fragile and evocative harmonies do indeed seem to point towards the future. Robert Schumann’s C major Fantasy, the dedication of which moved Liszt to reciprocate with something good of his own, seems to have left its own subtle mark on Liszt’s piano sonata. For example, the marvellous opening gesture of Schumann’s Fantasy, a descending melodic line, may have found its demonic echo in the dark opening of Liszt’s sonata, a descending melodic line in the bass. And the passionate way in which Schumann springs up the octave to restate his opening theme with more energetic dotted rhythms in a new key has a parallel in the way that Liszt begins the angry fast section that follows after the slow introduction. A little further on, Liszt’s ‘Grandioso’ theme has something in common with a theme in the last movement of Schumann’s Fantasy (‘Etwas bewegter’). It is pleasing to think that, even if poor Schumann never saw the sonata which Liszt had dedicated to him, he influenced Liszt’s imaginative world.

37. Nuages Gris, S.199 In his last years, Liszt suffered from episodes of depression. During this time, he wrote a number of piano pieces radically different in style from those of his earlier, flamboyant performing period. Gone are the torrents of notes which have inspired and terrified so many generations of pianists. The pages of his late piano pieces look almost minimalist, with few notes and simple lines. Liszt was always adventurous harmonically, but in these late pieces he goes much further, exploring the possibilities of unusual chords which are there not to indicate the direction of the phrase so much as to express a colour or atmosphere in the present moment, an experimental style which makes his music sound as if it came from the era of 136


Debussy and Ravel. The change of style is so marked that it feels almost as if he is trying to make amends for the excesses of his virtuoso pieces, or at least to make it perfectly clear that he no longer felt that way. Some of his circle felt that he had lost the plot at this time, but it may also be that he was adopting that brevity and concentration of expression which seems to mark many artists’ late works. Liszt was a close friend and supporter of the composer Richard Wagner. Their friendship was cemented when Wagner married Liszt’s daughter Cosima. Liszt often helped Wagner financially, attempted to give him good advice about how to run his life, and went to considerable lengths to promote Wagner’s operas when they were as yet unknown. As Wagner’s operas came out, Liszt often made piano transcriptions of parts of them. Like everyone else at the time he must have been struck by the harmonically daring Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and perhaps for more than one reason; some years before Tristan, Liszt himself had written a song, ‘Die Lorelei’, which has a harmonic gesture very similar to the opening of Wagner’s Tristan prelude. One might take the view that such harmonic language was simply ‘in the air’ at the time, or one might suspect Wagner of borrowing an idea or two from his father-in-law. One of Liszt’s best-known late piano pieces is Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds), written during a period of ill-health and low spirits in 1881 after he had fallen down the stairs in Weimar and was confined to his bed. It is only forty-eight bars long, very quiet and sparing in texture. It seems to wander sadly here and there, but is highly organised in a symmetrical structure. Nominally in the key of G minor, it seems to want to push delicately at the edges of this key with constant use of unexpected melody notes and intervals such as the G to C sharp we hear repeated over and over in the right hand. Liszt keeps gravitating to the ‘augmented triad’, a chord formed of two major thirds piled on top of one another, for example the F sharp-B flat-D chord we hear in the right hand in bar 11 and its three sibling chords which follow at two-bar intervals. As the piece goes on, the left hand rocks sadly back and forth between bass notes of B flat and A. In the final section of the piece, three ascending phrases in the right hand slowly cover the space of an octave. These three phrases strongly evoke the opening of Wagner’s Tristan prelude with its sequentially rising phrases over similar harmonies. Having come to a half-close 137


on F sharp in the treble, the note which we would expect to lead on to a close in G minor, Liszt then supplies the expected chord in the right hand but undermines it in the left with an ambiguous chord with A in the bass and another pile of thirds of various kinds on top of it. Throughout the piece, there is a sense of things not quite stated, of things hovering nearby in the dark (see the bass tremolos), of things trying to rise up and disappear. The refusal to end the piece with a gesture of closure makes it seem touchingly modern and reminds one of Liszt’s remark that his only remaining ambition was to ‘hurl my lance into the boundless realms of the future’.

ˇ ICH SMETANA (1824–1884) BEDR 38. Piano Trio in G minor, op. 15 Smetana was caught up in the struggle to fight for the rights of Czech culture at a time when Bohemia was ruled by the Austrian authorities. In his youth he was politically active, joining in with anti-government demonstrations; later, as the conductor of the orchestra at the newly established national theatre, he championed the cause of Czech opera. Smetana grew up speaking German, and had to make a determined effort to learn Czech when he got the national theatre job. One of the viola players in the theatre orchestra was Dvořák, who was to succeed Smetana as the leading Czech composer. As a young pianist, Smetana had been praised for his performances of the piano music of Chopin and Liszt, and his own piano music owed a great deal to those composers. Their influence can also be heard in one of his greatest works, his Piano Trio in G minor, op. 15. The circumstances of its composition were tragic. Smetana had three young daughters; in 1854 the second of them, Gabriela, died of tuberculosis and in 1855 his eldest daughter Bedřiška died of scarlet fever at the age of four and a half. Bedřiška had shown musical talent very early, and Smetana was devoted to her. He was shattered by her death, and that same year he composed the Piano Trio in her memory. The influence of Chopin, Liszt and the Schumanns (especially Robert’s piano quartet and Clara’s piano trio) can be felt in Smetana’s music, but his piano trio is 138


distinctively Czech and has an expressive grandeur all its own. All three movements are in the key of G minor, which clearly had a special meaning for him. The passionate tone is set straightaway when the first movement begins with a declamation by the solo violin; Smetana asks for it to be played on the G string, the violin’s lowest string, so the violinist must strive to play in the higher regions of that string, giving the sound an ardent, strained quality. The other two players have to match this level of emotional intensity when they join in a few bars later. The opening theme, heated though it is, seems to be a cousin of the mournful descending chromatic figure we know from Baroque laments, for example the repeating bass line of Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Dido and Aeneas. By contrast, the second theme is derived from a folk song that little Bedřiška loved. Here, its appearance is hesitant, as though its phrases cannot easily be made to link up to one another. In the middle of the movement it is the turn of the piano to have a solo passage, this time clearly inspired by Chopin’s piano style. The anxious second movement with its unison opening theme may have taken a leaf out of Robert Schumann’s book: the equivalent movement of Schumann’s E flat Piano Quartet (also in G minor) has the players in unison. The theme of the first movement is woven into this scherzo theme. There are two ‘trios’, here called ‘Alternativo’. The first of them has a puzzling touch of salon music, at least to our ears, but the second is a stern march in 3/4 time, marked ‘Maestoso’ (majestic) with a distinct suggestion of a funeral march. The Finale, marked Presto, alternates episodes of wild, determined dancing with soulful, songlike episodes, almost like the ‘Dumka’ form later used by Dvořák. (Indeed the rhetorical opening of Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio has always seemed to me to be inspired by the opening of the Smetana Trio.) The piano begins the main theme. It features pairs of repeated notes in the treble, which fight against triplet rhythms in the left hand. It has been suggested that this theme was inspired by a similar repeated-note theme in the finale of Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio. Outwardly this may be so, but the atmosphere of Schubert’s piece is delicate and otherworldly, whereas Smetana’s version is highly charged and dramatic. The movement opens with a desperate gallop which brings to mind the classic Dance of Death, and specifically Schubert’s Erlkönig. Schubert’s song 139


tells of a father riding through the woods at night with his young child and meeting a spirit who tries to entice the child away to his fairy realm; when they arrive home, the boy is dead in his father’s arms. Central to the movement is a lyrical section whose theme is related to the opening theme. This is passed from cellist to violinist and finally to the pianist, who takes time to decorate it in Chopinesque style. After a return of the wild dance, the lyrical theme returns on cello, this time accompanied by a dreamily sentimental piano part (a bit like the way Liszt decorates his lyrical theme when it returns near the end of his Piano Sonata), which needs careful handling in order to conjure up the right atmosphere of ‘looking back’. The finale flows onwards with various ruminations on the two main themes including an unexpected funeral march. It is swept aside by a burst of energy as the lyrical theme returns in triumphant mode, but is it really triumphant, or a grieving father’s desperate hope that love will be stronger than death? Sure enough, the energy ebbs away and we realise that the grim dance is still going on in the distance. But it loses its way, and after a bar of silent perplexity Smetana gathers up his forces for three final bars of affirmation, possibly just too late in the story to be entirely convincing.

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833–1897) 39. Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15 Brahms’s first piano concerto, his first major orchestral work, began life in 1854 as a sonata for two pianos, then was briefly reconceived as a symphony in four movements. Composing it at the piano, however, Brahms came to feel that the piano itself was central to the conception. Retaining only the first movement from his original material, he discarded the other movements, wrote two new ones and presented the work in 1858 as a concerto in three movements for piano and orchestra. The background to the piece throws some light on its character. In 1853, when he was only twenty years old, Brahms was introduced to Robert and Clara 140


Schumann, who took to him immediately. On looking through Brahms’s portfolio of compositions, Schumann recognised his genius and hurried to inform the world about it with a generous article in the influential magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. (‘And now he has arrived, this young blood, at whose cradle Graces and heroes kept watch.’) This seemed like the happiest beginning to a friendship. But Robert Schumann had been struggling with depression, and in 1854 he attempted suicide. From then until his death two years later he was confined to the asylum at Endenich, and Clara was discouraged from visiting him. Brahms visited him a number of times, however, and Schumann’s letters often mention how fond he was of this gifted young man. In Schumann’s absence, Brahms was a great support to Clara, helping her to focus on music as much as she could in the circumstances. During this same period Brahms played piano concertos in several concerts. He played Beethoven’s fourth and fifth concertos, and Mozart’s concertos in D minor, K466, and in C minor, K491. As Brahms must have spent considerable time preparing these works for public performance, it seems natural that they should have found their way into the bloodstream of his own D minor piano concerto. For example, the way the soloist enters quietly after an impressive orchestral tutti is characteristic of those two Mozart concertos. And the heroic style of piano writing in certain passages is surely influenced by Beethoven, Brahms’s hero. Schumann’s music too must have been in Brahms’s mind. Perhaps one should not try to use amateur psychology on abstract music, but it is interesting to note that Schumann’s music often includes themes which rise up in pitch and fall back as if defeated (a tendency which seems to become more exaggerated in his later years, for example in the G minor piano trio, where reaching up and falling back are almost ‘the themes’). By contrast, many of the themes in Brahms’s D minor concerto (e.g. the opening bars) are of an energetically upward-reaching character. Is it fanciful to feel that he was gathering up his forces to be as positive as possible, to defy fate with creative optimism? The concerto was finished in 1858, and in January 1859 Brahms was the soloist at the premiere in Hanover. It was coolly received by the audience. At the second performance, in Leipzig, the audience couldn’t even bring themselves to 141


clap. ‘The hissing was a bit much,’ Brahms recalled sadly (although the audience’s behaviour may have had something to do with the factional ‘wars’ going on between supporters of ‘conservative’ music – the Schumanns, Mendelssohn and Brahms – and the ‘new’ music of Liszt and Wagner). Things didn’t go much better when Clara Schumann performed it, with Brahms conducting. Clara wrote in her diary, ‘The joy of the work overcame me . . . but the public understood nothing and felt nothing.’ Gradually, however, performances were more warmly received, and the concerto made its way to where it is today, a revered classic of the repertoire. (I remember being told by my piano teacher that it was ‘not a suitable concerto for a girl to play’. Most record companies and concert promoters seem to have agreed, but that attitude too is changing.) The jagged opening of the D minor concerto is striking partly because it is in the ‘wrong’ key of B flat major (though admittedly with timpani and other instruments asserting the bass note D). The piece begins with a stormy and defiant orchestral episode, almost like the first scene of an opera. When the soloist enters, it is as though a curtain has risen to reveal the main character sitting at a window, lost in thought. The orchestra has been assertive and vigorous, but the piano is melancholy and inward. After developing this and other lyrical motifs, we arrive at the second main theme, a dignified chorale in F major played by the piano alone. In mood this anticipates the slow movement, and we meet the theme again in the finale. This stately theme is taken up by the orchestra, leading to a duet between piano and horn (an instrument which had sentimental associations for Brahms, because his father played it professionally and he had played it himself as a boy). The jagged opening theme returns, setting in motion a huge development which pulls the music through some distant keys and some fiery exchanges. At the reprise the chorale theme returns, this time in D major, and it seems as though there may be a tranquil ending, but no: the darkness of D minor finally prevails. In the slow movement, the sense of the pianist as a contemplative figure in the midst of turbulent forces is redoubled. In 1854, Brahms had told Clara Schumann, ‘I think of you going to the concert hall like a high priestess going to the altar’. When he was writing the piano concerto, he told her he was ‘painting a tender portrait of you’ in the slow movement. It has never been explained why Brahms 142


wrote the words ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini!’ (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!) in his manuscript score under the violin melody which opens the movement. Clara herself noted the ‘churchy’ atmosphere of the music. Was it first intended for a religious work such as a Mass, or even a Requiem (for Schumann?) Or was it a solemn declaration of his devotion to Clara? Whatever the thinking behind it, the movement is one of Brahms’s loveliest. The piano gives the impression of deep meditation which sometimes works loose into dreamy passages of melodic decoration where any sense of a regular beat is suspended. The final Rondo opens with a vigorous theme recalling Brahms’s ‘Hungarian’ music; one can almost imagine it being played by a gypsy fiddler. In fact, in a skilful bit of thematic transformation, the tune is derived from the quiet F major ‘chorale’ theme we heard in the middle of the first movement. And is it completely coincidental that the two themes share an outline with the famous melody of Robert Schumann’s piano piece ‘Träumerei’ from Kinderszenen? In this movement, Brahms once more takes inspiration from Beethoven, in this case the Rondo finale of his Piano Concerto no. 3, whose structure Brahms follows. There is a second theme, mellower in character and apparently new, yet it too is derived from the ‘chorale’ theme. Even the lyrical theme played in B flat major by the strings in the centre of the movement seems to allude to it, as does the spiky little fugue theme which follows. Brahms pays only lip-service to the conventional cadenza with a few rhetorical flourishes for the soloist, as if he is eager to get on to the business of recalling all the themes for a final display. This includes the relaxation of the Rondo theme into a perky little bit of ‘wind band’ music in the major key. The atmosphere lightens, the piano dispatches an even briefer cadenza, and the concerto ends in an affirmative D major. Twenty years later, Brahms went on to write an even more majestic piano concerto, the B flat major concerto. The two are wonderful illustrations of Brahms in his youth and in his maturity. But even if the second concerto is the more compositionally complex, there is an unsurpassable sense of power and passion in the first concerto, an astonishing achievement for a twenty-five-year-old. 143


40. Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34 Brahms created a marvellous body of chamber music with piano – duo sonatas, piano duets and duos, piano trios and piano quartets – but perhaps his crowning work in this genre is his Piano Quintet of 1864. It began life as a string quintet with the same instrumentation as the famous quintet by Schubert, who was clearly an inspiration. Brahms’s great friend Clara Schumann read through the score and reported enthusiastically, ‘What inner strength! What richness!’ but his other touchstone, the violinist Joseph Joachim, was not convinced by the scoring. ‘The instrumentation is not energetic enough to my ears . . . the sound is almost helplessly thin for the musical thought. Then again for long stretches everything lies too thickly.’ Brahms laboured on; he recast the work as a sonata for two pianos, but this time Clara Schumann was unconvinced: ‘The very first time I played it I had the impression of a transcribed work . . . Please, dear Johannes, do agree just this time, and rework the piece once more.’ Brahms always had a soft spot for his two-piano version, but he took Clara’s advice and rescored the work for piano and string quartet. This third version was a brilliant solution: the piano challenges the string quartet to match its percussive strength, and the strings inspire the piano with their singing lines. His friend, the conductor Hermann Levi, congratulated him: ‘out of the monotony of the two pianos a model of tonal beauty has arisen’. A pianist exploring the piano quintet repertoire will notice that the role of the piano varies quite considerably between works. Sometimes it is gently integrated amongst the strings (Schubert’s ‘Trout’ or Dvořák’s piano quintet), while at other times it is like a concerto soloist (César Franck). Sometimes the piano’s role is to provide texture and rhythmic life under melodic lines played by the string quartet (Fauré). Brahms’s quintet has maintained a leading role amongst quintets partly because the piano writing is so varied (hero/commentator/companion) and because it has such a big emotional range, from dark and stormy to tender and intimate. In fact, much of the piano part is written to be played quietly, which comes as a surprise for those used to the quintet’s reputation for grandeur. Certainly it is grand, but the grandeur is more than a matter of volume.



Brahms venerated Beethoven, whose methods of composition he often tried to follow. Throughout the quintet one can hear Beethovenian techniques of unifying material – for example the way the opening theme, in crotchets and quavers, is suddenly speeded up by the piano after the first pause into semiquavers for what feels like a mere transition passage, but is actually the first ‘rhythmic transformation’ of the piece. As Beethoven does, Brahms likes to tease the listener by making them wonder where the main beats are – for example in the passage leading up to the development, and the development itself, where Brahms moves around short phrases and fragments of the main themes, casting doubt on where the downbeat is. It wasn’t only Beethoven who had prompted Brahms to think about ways of shifting the bar line, or appearing to. Brahms had a library of early music scores – from Palestrina to Bach, Handel and Heinrich Schütz – which he studied, often marking instances of where the composer had implied a phrase in triple time cutting across a duple-time beat, or vice versa. It’s obvious in Brahms’s own works that he adores straightforward two-against-three rhythms. Quite apart from the fun of their effect, they are an aspect of his love of ambiguity, so characteristic of his piano quintet with its constant veering between sunshine and shadow (partly a Schubertian influence). Again in the slow movement Brahms fashions new themes out of old: for example, the wonderful opening theme on piano, which is transformed into the ardent second theme, in E major, played by second violin and viola. When the opening theme returns, this time played by the first violin and cello, the piano accompanies them with a murmured recollection of the quiet offbeats played at the start of the first movement development. A touch of rhythmic ambiguity continues to the very end of the movement, little sighing phrases being passed around in such a way that the main beats become delightfully vague. The third movement is called ‘Scherzo’ but if it is a joke, it is a grim one. This is the most physically taxing movement, all five players entering a trial of strength. Pianists familiar with the work will either fear or relish the famous moment when the angrily excited repeated-note figure is brought back fortissimo with the piano playing ‘on the beat’ in the left hand and ‘off the beat’ in octaves in the right, following this with dramatic rising chords played in syncopation, a semiquaver 145


before the main beats. The ‘Trio’ section introduces a broad and more relaxed theme in C major, but a restlessly rhythmic bass reminds us that we still have work ahead of us in the form of a huge reprise of the scherzo. At the end of the Scherzo Brahms hammers out the defiant falling-semitone, in this case D flat-C, which Schubert so memorably used at the end of his String Quintet. The Finale opens with a ‘poco sostenuto’ slow introduction which has a different character to all the rest. Its shifting, searching harmonies almost seem like a parallel of Haydn’s depiction of chaos at the start of The Creation. Out of the confusion emerges a melodic fragment which turns out to herald the theme of the last movement proper. The introduction’s atmosphere of repressed power is almost too strong for what it introduces, the rustic dance theme of the ‘Allegro non troppo’. However, the dance theme (again with offbeat rhythms in the bass) is another example of ambiguity, for it veers between wistfulness, cheerfulness and angry outbursts, all using the same thematic material. Dance episodes alternate with contrasting sections where a melancholy theme slides through chromatic key changes, perhaps alluding to the mysterious mood of the Introduction. Finally the dance theme is transformed into a fast, scurrying version in 6/8 time and we sense that the end is approaching. Brahms cannot resist a stern fugato section in which he combines his relaxed second theme (now in the home key) with the scurrying first theme. Offbeats and onbeats compete to the very end in the coda. It ends unexpectedly with a frantic downward arpeggio from the strings, overhanging the piano’s final chords by two quavers in a final touch of ambiguity.

41. Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, op. 78 In 1853, when he was only nineteen, Brahms met the violinist Joseph Joachim, who was two years older. They became lifelong friends, and it was Joachim who introduced Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann. Joachim was also a composer, and Brahms often sought his advice about his own compositions. The two of them wrote a ‘manifesto’ against the ‘progressive’ school of Liszt and Wagner, which they felt was taking German music in a regrettable direction. Joachim’s own playing, which influenced a whole generation of violinists in Germany and 146


beyond, was said to be ‘anti-virtuosic’, direct and pure with sparing use of vibrato and with the emphasis on conveying the music rather than drawing attention to the performer. This very much appealed to Brahms, who wrote all his great violin music, including the violin concerto and the sonatas with piano, for Joachim. It is worth noting that even in music inspired by a violinist (or cellist or clarinettist), Brahms described his duo sonatas as being ‘for pianoforte and violin’. As a composer-pianist, he naturally perceived the piano as being at the root of things, as did Mozart and Beethoven who also named the piano first when describing their duo sonatas. When Schumann first heard Brahms play through some of his works at the piano in the Schumann household in 1853, he mentioned that he had heard some ‘sonatas for violin and piano’, but Brahms did not publish such a sonata until 1879, by which time he might have abandoned the earlier attempts or revised them completely, as was his way. In any event, the first sonata to see the light of day was the G major, op. 78, one of his loveliest works. It was based on one of his own songs, ‘Regenlied’ (Rain Song), no. 3 of the op. 59 set of Lieder und Gesänge, a setting of a poem by his old friend Klaus Groth. ‘Pour, rain, pour down, awaken in me again the dreams I dreamt in childhood, when the water foamed in the sand.’ Brahms told his friend Theodor Billroth that the piece needed ‘a nice soft rainy evening to give the proper mood’. Billroth recognised the quotation from Brahms’s song about the rain, which appears most fully in the last movement, but was quick to realise that ‘the whole sonata is like an echo of the song, or a fantasy about it’. The appearance of the score is surprisingly like the look of a Mozart sonata for piano and violin, and seems to suggest that Brahms is in the tradition of Mozart as much as of Beethoven, with whom he is most often compared. Just as Mozart does in his sonatas, Brahms uses the violin, the treble line of the piano and the bass line of the piano as three lines juxtaposed in different ways – violin in duet with piano left hand, the pianist’s two hands in duet with one another, all three lines interweaving, and so on, in the spirit of true conversation. The writing is lithe and transparent, more like a line drawing than an oil painting, and not at all the heavy or pompous kind of music sometimes associated with Brahms. At the head of the score Brahms has noted, ‘Composed in the summer months 1878–79 147


in Pörtschach’. This was a village on the shores of the Wörthersee in southern Austria where Brahms wrote some of his most tranquil music. Not until the third movement do we hear the whole ‘Rain Song’ quotation, but the characteristic dotted rhythm of its first three repeated notes actually opens the sonata, in a gentle and sunny G major and marked ‘mezza voce’ (half-voice). The Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh had an unforgettable way of demonstrating to his students how to play this theme with its little rest or ‘breath’ between the first two notes – a graceful looping gesture of the bow, brimming with secret rhythmic life. Before long Brahms is indulging his love of cross-rhythm, for example dividing the six-crotchet bars into two groups of three in the piano part while the violin plays three groups of two. Melody follows melody in effortless sequence, the two instruments exchanging comments and roles, one moment leading and the next accompanying. Even in the stormy development, where the tempo of their exchanges heats up, the give and take is still remarkably well-balanced and friendly. The slow movement has a direct association with the Schumann family. When Brahms was composing this sonata, his twenty-five-year-old godson Felix, son of Robert and Clara, was fatally ill with tuberculosis. Brahms sent Clara a note with, on the other side, a sketch of the slow movement’s theme. ‘If you play what is on the reverse side quite slowly, it will tell you, perhaps more clearly than I could in any other way, how sincerely I am thinking of you and Felix,’ he wrote. It is one of Brahms’s chorale-like themes, broad and solemn with what Clara might have called a ‘churchy’ atmosphere. Before long, the mood changes: the music goes into a minor key and we hear a quiet ‘funeral march’, its dotted rhythm echoing the main theme of the first movement (and of the finale, as we later find). Yet this whispered march is marked ‘più andante’ (more flowing) as if it is determined not to succumb to sadness, and the funereal phrases are juxtaposed with tender hopeful replies. After a glorious reprise, the march returns, this time at the slow tempo of the opening theme. At the very end of the movement the piano part seems to be evoking the sound of French horns, a sonority so dear to Brahms whose father, as already noted, was a horn player. (He does the same thing at the end of the slow movement of his F major cello sonata, where the ‘horn calls’ also seem to signify peace.) 148


As the third movement begins, we move into a fragile and troubled G minor with the extended quote from the ‘Regenlied’, though here the music is faster than the song, giving it the character of a fleeting vision. The rapid and delicate semiquavers in the pianist’s right hand conjure the sound of rain, while in the bass the dotted-rhythm three-note figure now so familiar to us from the first movement is cast in a darker light, almost like a fateful warning. This twilight atmosphere is maintained for most of the movement, the rain pattering on. In the middle, there is a wonderful re-encounter with the E flat major ‘chorale’ theme of the slow movement, now sung by the violin. Its Adagio tempo has been transfigured into Allegro, and it flies along with hope in its heart. The rain song theme returns, and the ‘warning’ motif in the piano’s left hand arrives earlier in the phrase, as though the situation is more urgent. But this sad atmosphere is short-lived. A slightly slower coda lifts the music into G major, where we hear the ‘chorale’ for the last time. In the final moments, Brahms closes the circle in a most poetic way. The three-note dotted-rhythm motif with which the movement opened is passed upwards from piano to violin until in the final moments the whole of the first ‘Regenlied’ phrase is heard on the violin, an octave higher, in slower notes, and in the major key. We may hardly recognise it at a conscious level, but we cannot help but feel its spirit of benediction.

42. Piano Pieces, op. 118 In his youth, Brahms wrote heroic, muscular and virtuosic music for the piano, but the piano music of his last years is very different. It seems to illustrate that kind of ‘late style’ often remarked upon in artists’ work – an intensified simplicity, perhaps, and a mood which in Brahms’s music is often described as ‘autumnal’. Like his music in general, however, its atmosphere is not easily analysed. Is his late piano music more emotional, or is it more intellectual? Is it inspired by earlier composers such as Beethoven, or is it Romantic, or does it look forward to the developments of the next generation? Is it simple music, or complicated? It seems to combine all these elements. When he wrote his last sets of piano pieces (op. 116–119) in 1892–3, Brahms was spending the summer months in the Austrian resort of Bad Ischl where he 149


rented rooms in a peaceful villa in the hills. His mood was serious; his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg had died in 1892, and so had his sister Elise. He had quarrelled with his oldest and dearest friend, Clara Schumann, over the preparation of her late husband Robert Schumann’s D minor Symphony for publication. Nevertheless, Clara was mollified when Brahms sent her his op. 116 and 117 in 1892. ‘In these pieces I at last feel musical life re-enter my soul, and I play once more with true devotion,’ she wrote warmly. The following year, 1893, Brahms continued the series with the six pieces of op. 118, which Clara described as ‘treasures’. The six pieces comprise four Intermezzi, a Ballade and a Romance. They are arranged in two groups of three with an underlying key structure running through the six. The first in each group may be described as an introduction in a minor key to the second of the group, which is in the major version of the same key. The third of each group has a more noble, heroic character. The underlying key scheme is A minor-A major-G minor; F minor-F major-E flat minor, marking a descent in whole tones across the interval of a tritone. Is this significant? If one listens to the whole set, there is certainly a lingering sense of something gradually sinking or settling down, though it is doubtful whether one can keep in mind the precise sonority of A minor/major by the time one has got to the final one in E flat minor. Nevertheless, it seems that although the titles of the pieces – Intermezzo, Intermezzo, Ballade, Intermezzo, Romance, Intermezzo – may seem to lack design, the order of the pieces is arranged with deliberation. The year after they were written, Clara Schumann’s grandson Ferdinand reported that Brahms, who was visiting them at the time, had told Clara that he ‘no longer composed for the public, but only for himself ’. Brahms had gone on to say: ‘One composes until one’s fiftieth year. Then the creative power begins to diminish . . . one must always bear this fact in mind.’ Fortunately, he was wrong about that; we know now, of course, that he experienced an Indian summer of composition when he was in his sixties, but it is interesting that he considered himself to be writing in a ‘private’ style. He no longer wrote overtly virtuoso piano music, but one still needs an advanced technique to do justice to the nuances of feeling and to the delicate tracery of inner voices. He had turned away from 150


‘public’ forms and was exploring the combination of emotion and brevity. As Clara said, there was ‘a wealth of feeling within the narrowest confines’. There is indeed a huge range of feeling, from the ardent sighing of the first Intermezzo to the tender and lullaby-like second Intermezzo, the strong vigorous rhythms of the Ballade, the fleeting shadows of the F minor Intermezzo, the open harmonies and calm narrative of the Romance, and finally the troubled and regretful Intermezzo in E flat minor, through whose simple top lines we can easily see into the dark and turbulent depths below. Despite the diversity of moods, there are some features common to all the pieces: sadly drooping melodic phrases; frequent use of short-range ‘crescendo/diminuendo’ markings which seem to suggest deep sighs; harmonies which seem unable to settle, as if unsure whether there is ground beneath their feet. Intriguingly, although there is a pervasive sense of regret or at least wistfulness, two of the minor-key pieces end with major cadences, and five of the pieces end with an upward-reaching pattern of notes over the final cadence, as though Brahms cannot bear to leave us too downcast. Although on the surface the op. 118 pieces may seem fuelled by emotion, there are some extremely clever technical processes at work, especially in the second group. For example, the Intermezzo in F minor is a canon between the right and left hands, pursued in various ways through the whole piece: canon at the octave in the opening section, inverted canon when the hands move towards one another from different directions; in the middle section, a more complicated canon at the octave, and in the final section, a canon which is almost disguised by swirling triplets and semiquavers. In the Romance, there is counterpoint which is turned upside down: the obvious top line at the beginning has a counter-theme underneath it, played in octaves in the ‘alto’ and ‘tenor’ lines. Eight bars later, the roles are reversed. The underneath line is now on top, and vice versa. In the central Allegretto, the melody and its decoration are derived from that ‘underneath’ line. Most surprisingly of all, the sorrowful theme of the final Intermezzo, which seems purely poetic, is based on the mediaeval plainchant of the Dies Irae, the Latin hymn for the dead which is part of the Requiem Mass. In its monastic setting this is a stark and powerful chant. Brahms transforms it into something else with 151


his washes of bass arpeggios running up and down diminished-chord harmonies and his sad duets between treble voices singing the theme in thirds or sixths. In the middle section comes an unexpected change of tone: we almost seem to hear the arrival of a ghostly cavalcade bringing hope and strength. This builds up to a huge climax on a very emotional and undeniably Romantic dominant seventh chord marked ‘sff ’ (very loud and with emphasis), but its triumph is short-lived: only a bar later the Dies Irae returns with its dark bass arpeggios, and the final cadence remains in the minor key, suggesting that we have not been reprieved.

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835–1921) 43. Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 92 To those who know Saint-Saëns as an easy-going composer who, in his own words, ‘produced music as an apple tree produces apples’, his second piano trio will come as a surprise. Right from the beginning it’s clear that this is no mere entertainment but a serious work, conceived on a grand scale and ardent in temperament. It also has one of his most challenging piano parts, requiring a virtuoso technique. During Saint-Saëns’s heyday, the French musical public was focused on opera. Most people (then as now) found it hard to get interested in purely instrumental music with no singers and no obvious plot. Chamber music was felt to be the preserve of German and Austrian composers like Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. Saint-Saëns did not agree, and in a powerful defence of chamber music in the Journal de Musique of April 1877 he wrote: ‘People little acquainted with matters musical generally believe that the most important events in musical life take place in the opera house, and that instrumental music offers little of interest . . . In literature, there is the Theatre, but there is also the Book, to which we must always return, whatever the powerful attractions of the stage; in musical literature, concert and chamber music represent the Book, with its special importance, its solidity and its durability. It is only in the past few years that the truth of this has begun to be understood in France.’ 152


His first and second piano trios are separated by thirty years. The first is a charming work written in 1863, but the second dates from 1892, by which time he had become a grand old man of French music, somewhat cut off from the modernist experiments of his younger colleagues. He had taken to spending periods of time abroad, and the second piano trio was written in Algeria. He knew its seriousness would come as a surprise, and in a characteristically sardonic manner he wrote to his friend Charles Lecocq: ‘I am working quietly away at a trio which I hope will drive to despair all those unlucky enough to hear it. I shall need the whole summer to perpetrate this atrocity; one must have a little fun somehow.’ What was the inspiration for this ‘atrocity’, about which he seemed to feel a little sensitive? Something about its sweep and drama reminds one of Tchaikovsky’s massive Piano Trio. The two composers had met and become friends in 1875 when Saint-Saëns visited Moscow. In fact, one of their meetings produced this captivating anecdote, recounted by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest: It turned out that the two new friends had many likes and dislikes in common, both in the sphere of music and in the other arts, too. In particular, not only had they both been enthusiastic about ballet in their youth, but they were also able to pull off splendid imitations of ballerinas. And so on one occasion at the Conservatory, seeking to flaunt their artistry before one another, they performed a whole short ballet on the stage of the Conservatory’s auditorium: Galatea and Pygmalion. The 40-year-old Saint-Saëns was Galatea and interpreted, with exceptional conscientiousness, the role of a statue, whilst the 35-year-old Tchaikovsky took on the role of Pygmalion. Nikolai Rubinstein [pianist] stood in for the orchestra. Unfortunately, apart from the three performers no one else was present in the auditorium during this curious production.

Perhaps there was something about Saint-Saëns’s regard for Tchaikovsky which gave a particular depth of feeling to this composition. The trio is constructed in five movements in an almost symmetrical design: the two outer movements are fast, working inwards to two lighter, more graceful 153


movements as nos. 2 and 4, with a slow movement in the centre. The first movement, regarded as one of Saint-Saëns’s finest, is, as he put it, ‘black with notes and black in mood’. The density of notes is allocated to the pianist who takes responsibility for motoric drive and energy while the string parts are charged with carrying forward the grand, sweeping melodic phrases. If one only knows SaintSaëns through the entertaining vignettes of his Carnival of the Animals, the carefully built and cumulative power of his design in this movement will take the breath away. The second movement is a lilting ‘minuet’ in irregular five-time, which might lead one to think ‘Aha! He got that from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony!’ were it not for the fact that Tchaikovsky wrote his Sixth symphony the following year, so perhaps Saint-Saëns is the inspiration this time. The central slow movement is quite short and tuneful, based on a gracefully sinking melody which seems like a candid recollection of the slow movement of Schumann’s own second piano trio (Schumann was a favourite of Saint-Saëns’s). The fourth movement is another dance, a fast and graceful waltz in 3/8 time, which could almost be one of Debussy’s early works. As well as being a splendid pianist Saint-Saëns was also a fine organist, and in the fifth and final movement he seems to call upon the spirit and repertoire of organ music, which so often uses fugal writing and grand accumulations of sound intended to resonate around the building. This movement is on the massive scale of the first movement. It opens in solemn style with a fugal theme in octaves on the piano, and the fugal writing intensifies in the middle of the movement when a new theme is combined with the first. The tension is eased by a brief episode with a relaxed, lilting theme which seems to recall the irregular dance rhythm of the second movement. In the final section, Saint-Saëns transforms the opening theme into an energetic passage of running semiquavers for all three instruments. Saint-Saëns’s second trio has been described as the finest French piano trio of the nineteenth century, yet commentators are often puzzled that it has not become more of a cornerstone of the repertoire. The answer may lie in the disproportionate difficulty of the piano part. On the one hand, the highly virtuosic part gives the pianist the chance to contribute an abundance of sparkle, texture, energy 154


and rhythmic propulsion to the work. On the other, it dooms the pianist to a great deal of prior practice and ongoing technical challenge which may (and I speak from experience) make the pianist feel unevenly burdened in the shared project of bringing the piece to life. Many piano-based chamber works present some aspect of this problem, but Saint-Saëns’s E minor Trio is a striking example.

MILY BALAKIREV (1837–1910) 44. Islamey: Oriental Fantasy, op. 18 For a long time, Islamey’s chief claim to fame was that it was one of the most technically difficult piano pieces ever written. Ravel admitted that when he wrote ‘Scarbo’, the fiendish last movement of Gaspard de la Nuit, he was motivated partly by the desire to write ‘something more difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey’. Balakirev was an intriguing figure whose musical education came through piano lessons, the cultured household of a wealthy patron who introduced him to a wide range of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Glinka and Chopin, and his own determination to teach himself how to compose. At that time, the music conservatoires of Moscow and St Petersburg had not yet been founded. When the conservatoires started up, Balakirev was a self-made musician and felt suspicious of the idea of formal training. Despite his love of Beethoven, he resented the influx of German tutors who staffed the conservatoires and the institutionalised reverence for German composers. And despite his love of Liszt and Chopin he felt that the lure of Western European music should be resisted. Instead, he followed his mentor Glinka in believing that a distinctively Russian music, based on folk songs and dances from Russia’s many regions, should be cultivated. In 1848 Glinka had kickstarted this nationalist movement with his orchestral piece Kamarinskaya. It fuses folk music with classical forms by emulating a traditional Russian folk dance where a single melody is repeated over and over with energetic variations. Its simplicity and irresistible pulse were profoundly influential. Tchaikovsky, one of the many inspired by Glinka’s tribute to folk music, said that Kamarinskaya was the basis of the Russian school of symphonic music ‘as the whole oak is in the acorn’. 155


In 1869 Balakirev followed in Glinka’s footsteps when he wrote Islamey, one of the only works he wrote swiftly (Balakirev was well known to take ages over the process of composition). It was written for the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, who in the period leading up to its premiere practised it every day in the Moscow Conservatoire, his progress eagerly monitored by staff and students who (as Tchaikovsky reported) argued about the merits of the work; some were in raptures, others found it ‘a curious monster’. Balakirev had twice been on holidays to the Caucasus region, which only became part of the Russian Empire in 1864 after half a century of war. Because the Caucasus had once been ruled by Ottomans, Mongols and Persians, it had an exotic ‘Eastern’ appeal for many visitors. While he was there, Balakirev let it be known he was interested in folk music. ‘I made the acquaintance of a Circassian prince,’ he later told a friend, ‘who frequently came to me and played folk tunes on his instrument, that was something like a violin. One of them, called Islamey, a dance-tune, pleased me extraordinarily and with a view to the work I had in mind on Tamara [a symphonic poem] I began to arrange it for the piano. The second theme was communicated to me in Moscow by an Armenian actor, who came from the Crimea and is, as he assured me, well known among the Crimean Tatars.’ These two themes, one a whirling dance and the other a languorous song, are woven together in Islamey. The principle is the same as in Glinka’s Kamarinskaya: the dance theme is repeated many times, with elaborate variation. A short Lisztian transition ushers in the gorgeous romantic song that forms the ‘slow movement’, but it is not long before even this tune is bombarded with arpeggios. In the third section, both themes are ecstatically recalled for further acrobatics. There is little ‘development’ of the conventional kind; rather, the themes are decorated with increasing textural complexity. The pianist’s hands must fly about the keyboard with nearly incredible rapidity: repeated notes, double octaves, jumping chords, elaborate inner parts, left-hand arpeggios in octaves, and descants of devilish intricacy pile upon one another. Because the underlying form is simple, the piece may seem more of an athletic challenge and a test of reflexes than anything else. It is beyond the grasp (or appetite) of most pianists, and even Balakirev, a virtuoso pianist himself, admitted there were passages he couldn’t manage. Those who 156


have mastered it would probably agree that it remains an edge-of-the-seat experience in performance, but there is no denying that it is a mesmerising spectacle, guaranteed to fire up an audience.

GEORGES BIZET (1838–1875) 45. Jeux d’Enfants, op. 22, for Piano Duet Georges Bizet was an extravagantly gifted French composer who died in his thirties shortly after the premiere of his opera Carmen. Due to problems during rehearsals (orchestra and singers complained their parts were too difficult, and the management was concerned about the immorality of the plot) the premiere did not go particularly well, and Bizet died without knowing that Carmen would become one of the world’s most popular operas. Not long before Carmen, he composed the piano duet which made his name amongst pianists: Jeux d’Enfants (Children’s Games, 1871), originally a set of ten and later of twelve pieces depicting childhood scenes and games. His inspiration was probably the news that he was going to become a father: his son Jacques (later to be a friend of the writer Marcel Proust) was born in 1872. In writing evocations of childhood, Bizet inspired a number of compositions by French composers of the next generation: Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano duet, Debussy’s Children’s Corner for piano, Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) for piano duet. Bizet himself was probably inspired by Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood). At the time he was writing Jeux d’Enfants, Bizet was working on a piano duet arrangement of Schumann’s studies for pedal-piano, and Schumann’s music must have been in his mind. He does share with Schumann a very special quality of guilelessness. Bizet may have been writing about childhood, but he did not simplify the means used to portray it; Jeux d’Enfants is technically demanding for both players. For some reason, many of the pieces are in keys with many sharps and flats, difficult to sight-read (and the Durand Edition complicates matters by making sharps and naturals look quite similar). He clearly had a light, transparent sonority in mind; the majority of pieces begin either ‘piano’ or ‘pianissimo’. Very few indications of pedal 157


are given, except in the first piece, and he specifies ‘leggiero’ (light) or ‘leggierissimo’ (very light) in six of the pieces. These instructions increase the technical difficulties, first of all because both players need to have a light touch at their command (rapid quiet playing is often harder than doing the same thing loudly) and secondly because a dry, unpedalled texture shows up every little flaw. Moreover, there is no point in one player mastering the art of light, quiet playing if the other will not. One of the trickiest is the first piece, ‘L’Escarpolette’ (The Swing). Very quiet arpeggios swing up from the bass and down from the treble, and eventually one of Bizet’s irresistible tunes appears in the middle, wending its way through several keys before melting away to leave the arpeggios still swinging back and forth. This may have been inspired by Fragonard’s painting of the same name, though Bizet’s version seems more innocent. ‘La Toupie’ (The Top) uses simple means to create a lovely sense of spinning and wobbling. In ‘La Poupée – Berceuse’ (The Doll – Cradle Song) he writes ‘naivement’ for the treble player’s lilting melody. ‘Les Chevaux de Bois’ (The Wooden Horses) is a gentle good-natured canter, inspired perhaps by Schumann’s ‘Ritter von Steckenpferd’ (Knight of the Stick Horse). ‘Le Volant’ (The Shuttlecock) portrays the graceful flight of the shuttlecock over the net in a manner which distantly recalls Schumann’s piano writing in ‘Vogel als Prophet’ (Prophet Bird) from Waldszenen. ‘Trompette et Tambour’ (Trumpet and Drum) is a delightful march, of toy soldiers rather than real ones, which could be an interlude from Carmen. ‘Les Bulles de Savon’ (Soap Bubbles) challenges the treble player to be light and airy in music which rather recalls the old-fashioned ballet class and its wouldbe ballerinas. ‘Les Quatres Coins’ (The Four Corners) refers to a game in which children are positioned in corners of the room and have to rush to exchange places at a signal; the music seems to show moments of preparation followed by dashing about. ‘Colin-Maillard – nocturne’ (Blind Man’s Buff – Nocturne) is harder to understand – rather than showing a blindfolded child hastening forward to catch someone, it seems to portray the tentative movements of someone feeling lost in the dark behind the blindfold. ‘Saute-Mouton’ (Leapfrog) is a busy and boisterous game. (Who knows why French children play at leaping like sheep while English children leap like frogs?) 158


‘Petit Mari, Petite Femme’ (Little Husband, Little Wife) is one of the most lovable pieces. Bizet’s gift for charming melody is on full display as with the simplest of rhythms (mainly quavers and crotchets) he shows us children playing at being grown-up and ‘keeping house’; the ‘molto espressivo’ tune could almost be an aria from Carmen. Finally ‘Le Bal – Galop’ (The Ball – Gallop) evokes a popular dance often played at the end of a ball in nineteenth-century Paris. Everyone of all ages was invited to join in as best they could, which here seems to mean a bit of stamping and jostling as well as expert dancing. In the last fortissimo bars Bizet writes ‘furioso’, which is surely a joke, for the mood could hardly be more festive. Bizet’s death at the age of thirty-seven was a huge loss to music. He had the gift of melody, the art of expressing himself lucidly, and the skill of using adventurous harmonies with a light touch and a sparing hand. One can only imagine what he might have written had he lived into the twentieth century.

MODEST MUSSORGSKY (1839–1881) 46. Pictures at an Exhibition Modest Mussorgsky was one of the so-called ‘Mighty Handful’ of Russian composers whose aim was to create a national style of Russian music based on folk song and the rhythms of Russian speech. Trained as a soldier, he was on duty at a military hospital when he happened to meet the composer Borodin, who worked as a research chemist. (It’s intriguing to imagine how an on-duty soldier and a chemist got talking about music.) Borodin introduced him to a circle of composers, several of whom were not formally trained in music but were determined to fight their way towards musical expression. One of them, Balakirev, taught Mussorgsky how classical form worked by playing piano duet arrangements with him of symphonies by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, stopping to talk about how the works were put together (if only it were possible to listen in on their conversations!). Mussorgsky became so enthralled that he decided to devote his life to composing music, and luckily his family’s finances enabled him 159


to do so. He developed a style which was notable for its uncompromising directness and unconventional harmonies. ‘Speaking out boldly, frankly, point-blank – that is my aim,’ Mussorgsky stated. Mussorgsky was a friend of the artist and architect Victor Hartmann, who like him was motivated to capture characteristic scenes of Russian life and pay tribute to the art and literature of the Russian people. It was a great shock to Mussorgsky when the thirty-nine-year-old Hartmann died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1873. An exhibition of Hartmann’s drawings and paintings was organised, and Mussorgsky lent two which he had at home. The exhibition inspired Mussorgsky to compose a set of solo piano pieces called Pictures at an Exhibition, based on Hartmann’s works. They were quickly sketched and remained unpublished until five years after Mussorgsky’s death, when his friend and fellow composer RimskyKorsakov tried to put the manuscript into some sort of order for a first edition. Even then, the Pictures were rarely performed until the middle of the twentieth century. The music-loving public became aware of them largely through other composers’ orchestrations, particularly when Ravel did his unsurpassed orchestration of them in 1922. This in turn provoked interest in the piano original. Many people were surprised to discover how bold the piano writing is. Even on the page the music looks stark and sparsely scored in many of the movements. There are no indications of where to use the pedal. The hands often move together playing the same rhythm in octaves or block chords. The effect is of strong line drawings done by someone who has no interest in softening the outline or using the graceful shading and decorative effects which came naturally to, say, Liszt. Mussorgsky’s is not ‘piano writing’ in the traditional sense; it is almost as though he used the piano mainly as a way of getting these notes down on paper. Clearly he had a vivid vision of what he wanted to convey. One of his many imaginative touches is to portray himself walking through the Exhibition in a series of stately ‘Promenades’. The first begins the work, and the others are interspersed between the pieces, so that we can envisage him moving from one painting to the next. ‘My physiognomy is evident in the interludes,’ Mussorgsky said, and by that he was perhaps referring to the randomly 160


alternating bars of five and six crotchets, which give the impression of a portly person (as he was) waddling slightly. Over the opening Promenade theme he writes ‘nel modo russico, senza allegrezza’ (in the Russian style, without cheerfulness). The theme is a loose variant of a Russian folk song (‘Glory to the Sun’) he had used in the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov; interestingly, Beethoven had used the same folk song in the scherzo of his E minor string quartet, op. 59 no. 2. It was commissioned by Count Razumowsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, who perhaps asked Beethoven to use this Russian tune. The first picture is ‘Gnomus’, which refers to Hartmann’s design for a strangelooking nutcracker for the Christmas tree at the St Petersburg Artists’ Club in 1869. The nutcracker was in the form of a gnome with crooked legs. Mussorgsky could clearly visualise the way this gnome would move; rapid, lurching movements and weird stalking episodes, almost like the way Frankenstein is portrayed in early films, and with sinister trills in the left hand, over which the gnome lumbers towards us. A gentler version of the Promenade, now with the theme in the bass, takes us to no. 2, ‘Il Vecchio Castello’ (‘The Old Castle’), the title of a painting Hartmann did on his travels in Italy. This is one of Mussorgsky’s most lyrical numbers, a gentle lilting dance of the ‘siciliano’ style in several verses with a haunting, worldweary theme over a drone bass. Italian it is certainly not – this is a very Russian castle. A brief snippet of the Promenade, in a new key, leads on to no. 3, ‘Tuileries (Children quarrelling after play)’, inspired by Hartmann’s painting of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris which he visited as a young man. Mussorgsky makes great use of the interval of a falling third, so evocative of the melodious way that children call one another’s names from a distance. Scurrying figures dash about the park, and in the middle there is a more introverted episode, perhaps portraying a child who has been left out of the games. No promenade separates this from the shockingly loud ‘Oxcart’, a painting of a heavy Polish wagon pulled by oxen. Mussorgsky uses the same key of G sharp minor which he chose for ‘The Old Castle’. In very simple repetitive rhythms, he conjures up vividly the wagon with the stoically trudging animals whose road is very long. 161


Now we hear a differently harmonised and smoother version of the Promenade, indicating a more contemplative mood. It’s interrupted by a cheeky ‘chirp’ which alerts us to the arrival of no. 5, ‘Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells’. This was a costume design by Hartmann for a ballet to be danced by the children of the Imperial Russian Ballet School. ‘Canary chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armour. Instead of a head-dress, canary heads, put on like helmets, down to the neck’, the exhibition catalogue clarified. Mussorgsky charmingly calls it a ‘scherzino’, a little scherzo or joke. Most of it is marked to be played very quietly, and it is easy to imagine the miniature fracas going on among the eggshells. In the trio section (yet quieter), trills seem to evoke the fluttering of tiny wings. Without an intervening Promenade, we now find ourselves in a very different world, ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. Two Polish Jews, one rich, the other poor’. This portrait has been extensively discussed because of its implied antiSemitism, which in fact was common in Russia at the time. When Hartmann visited the Jewish ghetto in the Polish town of Sandomierz he had done two separate paintings of elderly men, one rich, one poor. Both are sympathetically portrayed. Mussorgsky combines them into one portrait in which their fortunes are contrasted; first we hear the pompous tones of the rich man, who sings or speaks in an exotic-sounding scale. Then we hear the stuttering, ceaseless pleading or pestering of the poor man, before the two are juxtaposed in a way that suggests that the rich man shouts down his needy companion. It is difficult to gauge the tone of this piece, which today makes for uncomfortable listening. Now we hear the whole of the opening Promenade again – perhaps we need time to clear our heads before the next painting, no. 7, ‘The Marketplace in Limoges. Big news.’ This is a technically challenging piece in energetic staccato semiquavers which give the pianist no let-up. The marketplace buzzes with chatter; people make their points with forceful jabbing. Mussorgsky scribbled down in the margins of his manuscript some items of gossip he imagined people excitedly sharing: ‘Big news! Monsieur de Puissangeout has recovered his cow, “The Fugitive”. But the good ladies of Limoges don’t care, because Madame de Remboursac has just got a lovely set of porcelain dentures, while M. de 162


Panta-Pantaléon is being bothered by his enormous nose, the colour of a red peony.’ He really should have been a writer too. Number 8 comes in two separate parts; ‘Catacombs’ leads on to ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua’, a lament for Hartmann. ‘Catacombs’ is based on Hartmann’s painting of his own visit to the catacombs in Paris. In the painting, a guide holds a lamp, illuminating a bank of skulls in the darkness. Mussorgsky imagines this scene with slow, sombre chords which alternate strangely between loud and soft, like huge blocks of stone and their shadows. In the bass, the lines sink mournfully downwards. In the second part, ‘With the dead in a dead language’, Mussorgsky imagines: ‘The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me towards the skulls and calls out to them. . . . The skulls begin to glow.’ Eerily, Mussorgsky inserts himself into this scene by putting a very slow and solemn version of the Promenade theme (which represents him) into the bass, while high up in the treble the skulls ‘begin to glow’ via a shimmering tremolo. The spell is broken by the violent beginning of no. 9, ‘The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Baba Yaga’s Hut’. It tells the tale of a Russian witch whose forest home has no windows or doors and stands on chicken’s legs. Baba Yaga flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle to row herself through the winds as she looks for victims whose bones she will eventually grind to paste using this same pestle. Hartmann had done an elaborate drawing of a mediaeval Russian clock designed like Baba Yaga’s house, and he himself had once surprised his friends by turning up at an artists’ fancy-dress ball dressed as this fearsome witch. The piece is in three parts, two angrily stomping outer sections with a sinister central episode where we can imagine the witch using her wiles to lure children into the mortar. Again using simple rhythms, mainly crotchets and quavers piled upon one another with ferocious energy, Mussorgsky conjures up the harsh mood of the folk tale. Finally we have ‘The Bogatyrs’ Gate at the capital in Kiev’, usually known as ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’. This refers to an architectural design Hartmann made in 1869 when there was a competition to design a gateway to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt in 1866. (Bogatyrs are mythical warriors whose deeds are told in Slavic epics.) Hartmann’s gorgeous gate had a huge rounded archway surmounted by carved designs and a belfry capped by a 163


tower in the shape of a Slav military helmet. He regarded it as his finest work, but the competition was called off and the gate was never built. It was, however, built in music by Mussorgsky. His magnificent evocation of the imagined opening ceremony is probably his most famous piece, especially in Ravel’s orchestration. In the piano version the tone is less varied, and since most of the piece is loud or very loud, controlling the build-up of grandeur without wearying the ear is a test of the pianist’s skill. With great imagination, Mussorgsky transforms the Promenade theme into the simpler outline of a great chorale, as if he wishes to merge with this scene and disappear into it. Between the chorales, in phrases marked ‘without expression’, he quotes from a Russian Orthodox chant used at the baptism service, although here it is the great gate which is being baptised. Finally he arrives at a huge peroration with bells ringing out in celebration and slow triplets steadying into massive duple time as he puts the final blocks in place. It is touching to imagine Mussorgsky both a character in this celebration and the author of it.

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893) 47. Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23 Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is one of the ‘warhorses’ of the concerto repertoire. Its character may have been influenced by Grieg’s piano concerto of 1869, with which it shares quite a few lovable characteristics: sweeping Romantic melodies, barnstorming virtuosity, and a clever and charming use of folk melodies, real or imagined. Tchaikovsky wrote two piano concertos and began a third one, but it is his first concerto which has become a classic. Its performance history has been dominated by male pianists, but this is gradually changing. It is surprising to hear that the first person to whom Tchaikovsky played his first piano concerto did not like it at all. This was Nikolai Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatoire, who had given him a job as a teacher of harmony and encouraged him as a composer. Tchaikovsky considered him ‘the best pianist in Moscow and a first-rate all-round musician’, and intended to dedicate the new 164


concerto to him. On Christmas Eve 1874 he met Rubinstein at the Conservatoire to play him the concerto. After listening to it, Rubinstein (according to Tchaikovsky) remained silent for an alarmingly long time and then unburdened himself of all his misgivings: the concerto was worthless, unplayable, vulgar, awkward, unoriginal, and should either be destroyed or completely revised. Tchaikovsky was hurt and surprised. However, he refused to be deterred, and in 1875 he went ahead and published it as it was. He dedicated it instead to the pianist Hans von Bülow, who praised it as ‘noble, strong and original’, and gave the premiere in Boston, where an enthusiastic audience demanded that the finale be repeated. It must be said that within a short time, Rubinstein admitted that his first reaction had been mistaken. He came to admire the concerto, first conducting it and later performing the piano part himself. A few years beforehand, Tchaikovsky had had an affair with an opera singer, Desirée Artôt, one of the only women in whom he was ever romantically interested. They talked of marriage, but Tchaikovsky’s ardour cooled before the decisive step was taken. He must have had happy memories of their relationship, however, because he seems to have woven references to Desirée into the concerto. It is not necessary to know about these hidden references to enjoy the music, but it does give an intriguing insight into what motivated Tchaikovsky as he was writing it. The opening section of the piece with its famous horn call, its thundering piano chords and its sweepingly Romantic melody (not in B flat minor at all, but in D flat major), has been criticised as not having much to do with the rest of the concerto. It’s true that the gorgeous first theme does not return, but it provides material for other themes throughout the whole piece. A close look at the ups and downs of the opening theme (including the horn calls) will show that elements from it are threaded through the theme of the fast section, the lyrical second theme, the theme of the slow movement, and the finale’s two main themes. The fast ‘skipping’ section of the first movement is based on a Ukrainian folk song, almost unrecognisable in a costume of Lisztian wit and ornament. It subsides into a quiet and wistful theme introduced by the orchestra and answered by the piano; this is Desirée’s theme. (Its first two notes, D flat and A, are Des and 165


A in German musical nomenclature, allegedly Tchaikovsky’s shorthand for Desirée Artôt.) This broadens into a beautiful extension of the theme in A flat major; the marvellous development which follows is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet music. When this lyrical theme appears again in the reprise, Tchaikovsky lets the orchestra play the whole theme on its own, the piano just joining in for its elaboration. This time, the lyrical theme is borne along on the moving carpet of a syncopated accompaniment, a delightful touch. This same wistful theme keeps its grip on Tchaikovsky’s imagination even during the powerful cadenza, from which it emerges with the last word. The second movement begins with a beautiful lullaby played by the flute and echoed by the piano before an episode of little ‘sighs’ leads to yet another lovely tune, this time played by oboe over a ‘drone’ bass and answered by the piano before the lullaby is heard again from a solo cello, the piano accompanying it. Then, in a ‘Prestissimo’, the little sighs are turned upside down by the pianist and speeded up to become lively background chatter for a surprising new theme, the French song ‘Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire’ (You should have fun, dance and laugh), which Tchaikovsky and his brothers used to sing, and which was part of Desirée’s recital repertoire. The piano’s decoration eventually dissolves in a Lisztian haze before bringing us back to the lullaby theme for the closing section. The finale incorporates two folk songs. The first is a Ukrainian ‘spring song’ with a vigorous ‘kick’ in its rhythm (Grieg also opens the finale of his piano concerto with the kicking dance of a Norwegian ‘Halling’, perhaps an inspiration here). The second is a contrasting lyrical theme akin to the grand opening of the concerto, based on a Russian folk song, ‘I am going to Tsar-gorod’. These two themes are developed, along with a tripping dotted-rhythm motif which injects a feeling of excited anticipation. The tempo increases and the soloist dashes up and down the keyboard with glittering runs and arpeggios, eventually depositing us at the start of a long bass ‘pedal note’, which alerts our ear to the likelihood of an impending return to the home key. Over this bass note, melodic motifs are stirred together in an exciting way, culminating in a mighty recall of the lyrical theme in B flat, the grandeur of its statement providing a counterweight to the grand theme which opened the whole concerto. Finally the Ukrainian dance theme bursts in, 166


propelling the soloist to paroxysms of delight. The concerto closes with a blizzard of ‘blind octaves’, a technique invented by Liszt in which the pianist’s hands alternate up the notes of a chromatic scale to create the effect of impossibly fast double octaves.

48. The Seasons, op. 37a It is revealing to hear Tchaikovsky, one of the composers most associated with grand Romantic effects, writing for the domestic market. In fact, it was a wonderful time to be providing new music for the amateur pianists of Moscow, St Petersburg and beyond, because the piano had become hugely popular in Russia. In 1810 there were four piano manufacturers in the two principal cities, but by 1860 there were more than thirty, an enormous increase. The Tsar had given his patronage to all sorts of artistic societies and artisans including small industrial firms making pianos. Every household with social aspirations had at least one upright piano, if not a grand or ‘royal’ piano as it was called. The population of Russia had increased greatly in the mid-nineteenth century, partly due to the influx of western Europeans, their arrival encouraged by a Tsar keen for Russia to be seen as westernised. French, German and British entrepreneurs brought with them their tastes and attitudes. Western European piano music and pianists were highly esteemed, and being able to play the piano was considered a sign of social eligibility, as shown in novels such as Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry. The great Tolstoy was known to play the piano for hours and had let it be known that ‘music was not an amusement but an important business in life’. Shortly after the premiere of his first piano concerto in 1875, Tchaikovsky started work on his Swan Lake ballet music. At the same time he received a request from the editor of the St Petersburg magazine Nuvellist to write a set of twelve piano pieces, one for each month of the year. Tchaikovsky accepted the commission, and the magazine joyfully told its readers: ‘Our celebrated composer Tchaikovsky has promised the editor of Nuvellist that he will contribute to next year’s issues a whole series of his piano compositions, specially written for our journal, the character of which will correspond entirely to the titles of the pieces, 167


and the month in which they will be published in the journal. It was not until the end of 1875 that Tchaikovsky got round to writing ‘January’ and ‘February’, but it seems that most of the rest were written in the spring of 1876 before he left Russia for Paris (where he was bowled over by Bizet’s Carmen) and Bayreuth (where he attended the first festival devoted entirely to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle of operas). Tchaikovsky was happy to write to commission, especially for a fee as generous as this one was, and he accepted the editor’s suggestion for the titles of the twelve pieces and the Russian poems to be printed alongside. He even asked the editor to tell him frankly whether his little pieces were ‘too long or too poor’, offering to rewrite them if need be. For a composer who had been grappling with the huge orchestral forces and the brilliant extrovert writing of the B flat minor concerto, writing short piano pieces for a magazine may not have seemed much of a challenge, but even though he was immersed in Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky had plenty of melodic inspiration left over for The Seasons. January, ‘By the Fireside’ is a title that will remind pianists of an identical title in Schumann’s Kinderszenen. It is somehow fitting that Tchaikovsky’s cycle begins with music reminiscent of Schumann, whose music he loved. Indeed, some of this first piece – particularly the middle section with its sighs and its wisps of arpeggios rising like smoke towards the ceiling – has a very Schumannesque vein of melancholy mixed with peaceful cosiness. February, ‘Carnival’, is much more technically difficult. It could be a scene from a ballet with its excitable rushing around and its calmer middle section – this seems like an opportunity for one of those ‘character actors’ who appear in Tchaikovsky’s ballets to make a dignified appearance. March, ‘Song of the Lark’, is a wistful evocation of birdsong which may well have its inspiration in Schumann’s mystical ‘Vogel als Prophet’ from Waldszenen, in the same key of G minor. April, ‘Snowdrop’, is a song-like number which gives the pianist an opportunity to practise a duet between a melodic phrase played by the right hand and answered by the left hand in the ‘tenor’ region of the keyboard, with accompanying chords weaving quietly around them. 168


May, ‘Starlit Nights’, is a three-part structure with peaceful chords strumming under melodic fragments in the outer sections, and a sudden burst of energy in the middle which seems like a response to the line of poetry, ‘How fresh and clean May flies in!’ June, ‘Barcarolle’, feels a little like one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. Its use of a gently syncopated accompaniment in the middle section and the closing section gives it a delightful lilt. The Barcarolle has proved one of the most popular of the pieces and exists in multiple arrangements for everything from mandolin to guitar duet and symphony orchestra. July, ‘Song of the Reapers’, begins a run of more substantial pieces, as though Tchaikovsky was in a more expansive mood when he wrote the second half of the year. It is a strong, vigorous threshing song with episodes of excitable scurrying, like younger members of the family running about. When the song returns in the last section it is accompanied by a ‘spinning’ motif in the left hand, like a wheel going round in the farmyard. August, ‘Harvest Song’, is one of the longest and most technically challenging pieces, requiring quick reflexes as the music jumps about the keyboard evoking hectic activity. In the middle, there is a calmer section in which soprano lines are answered by bass lines in the left hand, perhaps evoking songs being sung in an interval of rest. September, ‘Hunting Song’, is the third substantial piece in this group, and another of the most technically demanding. It evokes the trumpets or bugles of the hunt and a colourful parade of riders on horseback. In the middle, there is a mysterious episode with little creeping phrases calling to one another between high and middle voices: perhaps these are animals, trying to stay out of sight in the undergrowth as the hunt passes by with horns blaring? October, ‘Autumn Song’, is perhaps the most beautiful and serious piece, a tender portrait of regret with more than a touch of Schumann about it. Again, Tchaikovsky passes a melody from the right hand to the left, and here he adds a beautiful descant for the right as he does so. In the final bars, the melody is heard resounding quietly after the bass has stopped. November, ‘Troika Ride’, is a depiction of a big Russian sleigh pulled by three horses. This substantial piece, a favourite encore of Rachmaninoff ’s, could be 169


taken from a ballet score. We can easily imagine ourselves flying through the snow, or even through the sky. In the middle section, the jingling harness of the horses can be heard. The closing section, where the opening theme comes back quietly in the left hand, embroidered by glittering semiquavers or snowflakes in the right hand, is one of the trickiest passages in the set. December, ‘Christmas’, is an extended (possibly over-extended) waltz; again, this could be straight out of the Christmas scene in a ballet like Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty. The waltz melody is at first mainly given to the right hand with Viennese waltz accompaniment in the left. A delicious move from A flat into E major slides us into the calmer middle section, where the pianist’s two hands engage in an agreeable exchange of pleasantries, almost like members of the older generation curtseying and bowing to one another in the anteroom. The whole tranquil waltz is then reprised, though in the coda its harmonies seem to hint at melancholy even in the midst of the festivities.

ˇ ÁK (1841–1904) ANTONÍN DVOR 49. Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81 Dvořák’s second piano quintet has become one of the most beloved pieces in the chamber music repertoire. He had written a quintet fifteen years earlier, tried to revise it, but then decided to replace it with a completely new work. The A major quintet is one of his best works in any genre, brimming with Slavonic melodies, cleverly constructed and glowing with good-heartedness. Dvořák did play the piano, but it was not his favourite instrument. That was the viola, which he played firstly in a dance band and then in the orchestra at the Provisional Theatre in Prague. At that time, Bohemia was a province of the Habsburg Empire and many aspects of Czech culture had been suppressed. In 1860 the Emperor officially relaxed this attitude and a ‘provisional theatre’ was established to encourage the creation and production of Czech national plays and operas while funds for a permanent theatre were raised. Smetana, who soon became the theatre orchestra’s conductor, composed works which expressed the 170


new Czech musical nationalism. Dvořák too began to blend Czech folk music and dance with the ‘modern’ style of German composers he admired, such as Wagner, Liszt and Brahms. The struggle to synthesise these elements occupied Dvořák for many years. Sometimes he seems to veer towards the ‘German’ side (for example, in his Piano Trio in F minor or his Seventh Symphony) and sometimes to the Czech (for example, in his Slavonic Dances, his Eighth Symphony, or his Piano Trio in E minor, ‘Dumky’). Occasionally he seems to hit on a happy combination of the two, as in his Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81, written during a summer in his beloved country house at Vysoká in the Carpathian Mountains. Dvořák’s piano writing is sometimes rather thickly textured and awkward to play (as in the F minor Trio) but in the Piano Quintet he has achieved a transparent style of piano writing and an ease of expression, almost like Schubert’s approach to the piano part in his ‘Trout’ Quintet (also in A major). One of the great strokes of luck in Dvořák’s life was his encounter with Brahms, who sat on the jury that awarded Dvořák an Austrian state stipendium (‘for talented composers in need’). Brahms was moved by his first glimpse of Dvořák’s portfolio of unpublished compositions. He put Dvořák in touch with his own publisher and tried to persuade him to move to Vienna, even offering to finance the move, but Dvořák resisted (his imperfect grasp of the German language being a factor). Brahms himself, who worked so hard to achieve Beethovenian seriousness, was quick to appreciate unforced musicianship when he heard it, and once said that any composer would be honoured to have the ideas that Dvořák discarded. This was perhaps Brahms’s chance to offer to a fellow composer the same kind of selfless support he himself had been offered in earlier years by Robert Schumann. As a result of getting to know Brahms, Dvořák became very fond of Schumann’s music too; in Dvořák’s piano quintet there are a number of places that show Schumann’s influence. As a pianist I have always relished the opening of Dvořák’s piano quintet. It is simple, but sums up the work’s delicate Bohemian flavour. On the face of it, the piano is doing no more than setting the scene for the cello melody, but how sweetly Dvořák arranges for smooth triplets in the right hand, a sustained bass 171


note A in each bar, and a three-note rising figure in the ‘tenor’ part which cuts against the triplets with a dotted rhythm. Put together, these elements create a tiny rhythmic frisson, a Bohemian lilt, especially when the staccato dots in the left-hand part are observed. All this is just ‘cushion’ for the glorious fifteen-bar cello melody, yet the care with which Dvořák notates the piano part illustrates his wonderful ear for sonority. The cello’s theme sounds as if it might have been lifted from an old Czech song, but was actually invented by Dvořák. The melody hints almost immediately at the major/minor inflections which give the piece its distinctive flavour. His second theme, also evoking folksong, is a restless figure in C sharp minor, announced by the violin weaving above and below a repeated note. Again, the accompaniment combines duple and triple rhythms, this time split between piano (duple) and strings (triple). In the development, Dvořák transforms his first subject into the minor, instantly changing its mood from sunny to melancholy and even troubled and angry. Indeed, the second theme in its minor key dominates most of the reprise and it is only with a mighty heave that Dvořák gets the movement back into the home key for an almost orchestral peroration. The slow movement shows Schumann’s influence, specifically that of the slow movement of his own Piano Quintet in E flat, written forty years earlier. It feels as though Schumann’s work had left a powerful outline on Dvořák’s imagination, to be filled with his own Bohemian melodies. Dumka is a poetic form of Ukrainian origin, usually composed of melancholy or meditative sections. In music it has come to mean a thoughtful piece with alternating slow and fast sections. Schumann uses this structure, naturally without calling it a Dumka, in his own piano quintet’s slow movement. His formula – an introduction, a march theme, a contrasting lyrical episode in a major key with flowing triplet accompaniment, the march theme again, an agitated episode, the march theme again (more anxious, with triplet accompaniment), the contrasting lyrical episode, the march theme and a coda – is echoed by Dvořák. Dvořák follows more than just the outward shape; some melodic cells from Schumann’s themes seem to have made their way into Dvořák’s as well (compare for example the violin/viola theme at the beginning of the Schumann, and the 172


viola theme at the start of the Dvořák). Touchingly, Dvořák’s final gesture in the movement, a sad descending arpeggio in the coda, feels like an unconscious tribute to the similar arpeggio which begins Schumann’s slow movement, and Dvořák’s very last chord of the movement – an uplifting moment of consolation – is surely inspired by Schumann’s ethereal chord at the equivalent moment. All this illustrates Dvořák’s powers of transformation, for just as the Schumann movement feels completely German, so Dvořák’s feels unmistakably Czech. The Scherzo is subtitled ‘Furiant’, a wild, fiery kind of Czech dance which often follows a Dumka. Here the string quartet gets to introduce the theme with a demanding melodic line for the first violin. As the piano takes over, Dvořák very sweetly introduces a counter-melody on viola, derived from that gorgeous opening theme of his first movement. In this movement dance episodes alternate with peaceful rustic episodes in which it is easy to imagine bells ringing in country churches and echoing across the landscape. The ‘Poco tranquillo’ section in F major introduces what feels like a new theme on violin, but it is derived from bars 2 and 3 of the opening theme. As Dvořák winds his way back from this Ländler-like episode he creates some ravishing harmonic nuances, almost Schubertian in their ability to evoke happiness and sadness at the same time. The finale is driven by short rhythmic figures, some of them designed to trick us about where the downbeat is. For example, after the rhythmic introductory bars, the first main theme, led by the violin, actually starts on an upbeat. When the piano restates the theme, it brings it forward by one beat to begin on the downbeat. Ideally there should be an amusing difference between the two versions, though it is hard to bring out in performance. Dvořák saves his most charming melodic idea for the second theme, which brings a welcome sense of relaxation to the movement. As in the first movement, he casts his opening theme into the minor to drive the development and the C minor ‘fugato’ section, a stern little chapter which may well have been inspired by Schumann’s fugato at a similar moment in his quintet finale. In the final minutes there is a typical Dvořák touch where, just before he asks the players to accelerate to the end, he seems to turn aside in reflective mood with a series of almost solemn chords and gentle echoes, like a quiet moment between priest and congregation before the festival continues. 173



Into the Twentieth Century


As the sonority and expressive possibilities of the piano were enlarged, it became more and more popular. The heyday of the piano as a domestic instrument was 1870–1920. Having one in the home was considered a sign of culture and aspiration. The middle classes in Europe and North America were becoming more prosperous. They were able to afford to buy their own pianos, and were happy to add pianos to the list of possessions which made them look respectable. Pianists were also popular. Well-known virtuosi, whose adventures were eagerly followed by their fans, often brought out their own editions of piano classics with the aim of providing guidance for amateur pianists. Those amateurs in turn were willing to tackle difficult works of piano music at home. Often they would learn parts of sonatas or cycles of piano pieces, perhaps never completing their study of the whole work but nevertheless gaining a valuable sense of relationship with it. Publishers were confident of being able to sell sheet music to a large and appreciative market. Symphonies and other orchestral works were brought out in arrangements for piano duet and sometimes for solo piano. This was still the age when, if you wanted to hear piano music, you had either to play it yourself, persuade someone to play it for you, or buy a ticket for a concert where a professional pianist would play it in your presence. Music was still synonymous with ‘live music’. Interestingly, the popularity of the piano as a domestic instrument did not decrease the interest of amateur pianists in their professional counterparts, and may even have enabled amateurs to identify more closely with virtuosi. For, as well as this being the era when lots of people had pianos at home and played them, it was also the era of great virtuoso composition. Albéniz, Scriabin, Busoni, Rachmaninoff, Ravel – all of them wrote piano music of immense technical difficulty. Yes, there was plenty of music tailored to amateurs – for example, Grieg’s multiple sets of Lyric Pieces – but the piano was also the hero of the most scintillating instrumental music ever composed, and there were plenty of virtuosi who accepted its challenge with dazzling results. There was probably a subtle relationship between the amateur’s feeling that the piano ‘belonged to them’ and the fact that celebrated pianists were triumphant on the public platform; perhaps every amateur pianist saw themselves ‘writ large’ as they listened from the audience. 177


EDVARD GRIEG (1843–1907) 50. Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16 When Edvard Grieg was only fifteen, he was sent from his home in Norway to study piano and composition at the famous Leipzig Conservatoire in Germany. At that time the Conservatoire, founded by Felix Mendelssohn and still basking in his reflected glory, was a conservative place. Grieg found his studies dry, but enjoyed going to concerts and hearing the latest music. He developed a particular love of Liszt and Schumann. Robert Schumann had died only two years earlier, but his widow Clara Schumann had somehow managed to continue touring as a concert pianist. Grieg heard her play her late husband’s piano concerto in Leipzig in 1858 and it made a deep impression on him. When he came to write his own piano concerto, ten years later, the influence of Robert Schumann was still strong. Grieg’s piano concerto has long been one of the most popular piano concertos and, alongside the incidental music to Peer Gynt, is one of his two major orchestral works. It is in the key of A minor and is his only piano concerto, two things it has in common with Schumann’s concerto. Grieg’s was the first piano concerto ever recorded (in abridged form, by pianist Wilhelm Backhaus in 1909) and has built up a huge discography. Audiences have always loved its flavour of Norwegian folk music. Its gorgeous harmonies and key changes made it a natural fit with Hollywood movies when they came along. It was famously used in the Ingrid Bergman/Leslie Howard film Intermezzo in 1939; equally well-known to British audiences is a 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special television show where André Previn attempts to conduct it with comedian Eric Morecambe as the impertinent soloist. (Morecambe plays his own version of the opening theme with a kind of ragtime left-hand accompaniment which was considered hilariously unsuitable, though ironically the last movement of Grieg’s piano concerto contains a very similar style of piano writing.) Over the years, many pianists have taken outrageous liberties with Grieg’s tempo markings and particularly with his dynamics, often playing more loudly than he indicates. Somehow the essential good nature of the piece has helped it to survive these interventions. 178


Grieg’s fame amongst pianists rests partly on his many short compositions for piano, such as the Lyric Pieces. Although sweet and charming, these can be a little repetitive. It’s interesting that his piano concerto, which is so much longer, does not suffer from this same weakness; indeed it seems to fill the half-hour effortlessly with a cascade of tunes, and feels as if it had strength for more. Many composers are skilful at writing themes, but Grieg had the rare ability to write themes that the audience’s memory can swallow whole. His thought processes are clear, which makes it easy for the listener to follow what is going on. Grieg had learned from Liszt the art of ‘thematic transformation’, unifying a composition by making subtle changes to the character and tempo of its themes and reusing them in other parts of the piece. Grieg uses this technique in his piano concerto, but does so in a very open and, one might almost say, considerate way. A drum roll heralds the dramatic entry of the pianist with a fortissimo descending figure, both hands playing in octaves. (Schumann’s concerto has a similar opening gesture.) The first notes we hear from the piano contain the ‘Norwegian’ melodic shape of a falling semitone followed by a falling third, which often occurs in (for example) Grieg’s Peer Gynt or his Lyric Pieces. After a brief cadenza, we hear the principal theme played by woodwind, quiet and poised with a gentle lilting rhythm. It develops into a yearning upward-reaching phrase. The piano repeats all this, taking it further and spilling into an ‘animato’ section with a skipping motif. A good example of Grieg’s skill is the way the second theme is approached via a sweeping lyrical passage whose soaring phrases make us expect something even grander. But when the second theme arrives, it turns out to be a more contained version of what we have been hearing, similar in rhythm but narrower in melodic compass and more intimate in character, all of which is strangely touching. After a lovely development section Grieg gives the piano a long solo cadenza, starting quietly with the opening theme and building it up to a mighty climax amid tremolos, sweeping left-hand arpeggios and ‘roaring’ Lisztian chromatic scales played by both hands in the bass. It’s easy to imagine that this kind of piano writing was an inspiration to Rachmaninoff. The slow movement is in the unexpected key of D flat major and has a simple three-part structure of theme, interlude and enhanced theme. Its mood is 179


dignified and hymn-like, its rich violin melody including an upside-down version of the ‘Norwegian’ figure we heard at the start of the first movement, this time a rising semitone and a third. Further thematic transformation comes when the piano enters with a dreamy Chopinesque meditation, its melodic shape derived from the concerto’s opening. At the end of this interlude, the piano takes up the hymn-like theme, embroidering and augmenting it into a grand climax. As in Schumann’s concerto, the slow movement proceeds straight into the finale, but here the pianist launches it with a tremendous flourish (rather too often, alas, the end of the descending run is not precisely caught by the orchestra). This movement also has a Norwegian flavour, this time of the ‘Halling’, a traditional dance designed to show off athletic skill with kicking, throwing and jumping. The pianist too has to demonstrate great acrobatic skill and strength. After a mighty climax, the scene suddenly changes and we encounter a ravishingly lovely quiet melody, high on a flute, again with Norwegian-style ‘vocal’ ornaments of the main line. This slow lyrical episode is a kind of inset, almost like a Hollywood ‘dream sequence’ within the movement. It is followed by a reprise of the energetic dance theme. This time the drama overflows in a Lisztian cadenza which heralds the final section, a rhythmic transformation of the ‘Halling’ dance into an exciting triple-time whirlwind. Even this is not the climax, for Grieg has one last trick up his sleeve: a final fortissimo appearance of the lyrical theme in a blaze of glory.

51. Lyric Pieces Just as Chopin’s Mazurkas were a thread running through his whole composing life, so Grieg’s Lyric Pieces were a thread running through his. This was the heyday of the piano as an indispensable item in any well-ordered household, and Grieg was writing for a huge domestic market. He started composing his Lyric Pieces in 1867 and by 1901 had published sixty-six pieces in ten volumes. The Musical Times in England, reviewing Book VI in 1894, commented that the music required ‘taste, poetic feelings and intelligence rather than great executive facility’, and predicted that it would be welcomed ‘by all who in music prefer feelings to fireworks’. 180


In his youth, Grieg studied for a time in Leipzig in Germany. As a Norwegian, he struggled to decide whether he should pursue the compositional path laid down by leading German composers, particularly Wagner. It was not until 1863 that he saw another, more fruitful way to express himself. A young Norwegian composer, Rikard Nordraak (who composed the Norwegian national anthem), persuaded Grieg that he would find a great source of inspiration in the folk music of Norway. ‘A mist fell from my eyes,’ wrote Grieg, ‘and suddenly I knew the way I had to take.’ From then on, his work was guided by the folk music of Norway and its splendid tradition of fiddle playing (in which the intervals of fifths between the violin’s open strings are strongly featured). The first set of Lyric Pieces, published in 1867, saw the fruit of this new thinking. It was at this time too that Grieg started giving titles to individual piano pieces, making clear the images and scenes behind them. He became deeply immersed in the Norwegians’ struggle for their own identity. In 1900 he visited Denmark’s capital city, Copenhagen, from where he wrote to his friend Johan Halvorsen, ‘Although I am out of the country, my only thoughts are about Norway and Norwegians, about all our youthful pugnacity up there. Yes, it is like the music of strong triads compared to all the sugary sevenths down here. The struggle in Norway has to do with spiritual survival; down here they are concerned with trivialities’. In other words, some of the features of Grieg’s music which have been seen as rather too straightforward (simple forms, repetitive harmonies, regular phrase lengths) were meant to evoke the strength and good heart of the Norwegian people. Because Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are (with a few exceptions such as ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’) not technically difficult, they have long been used as teaching material. Even the composer was aware of their likely fate, but was glad of the income from his little piano pieces and once referred to them as ‘Semmeln’, meaning those fresh bread rolls which people love to collect from the baker’s. Because of their association with novices the Lyric Pieces fell out of the recital repertoire and, writing about them as long ago as 1943, pianist and historian Kathleen Dale wryly remarked that ‘what bad pianists had ruined in private, good pianists could hardly reinstate in public’. Nevertheless, they have retained their 181


place in the public’s affection and in recent years have been rehabilitated through some very fine recordings. My own experience of these pieces is that if I forget any expectation that they should ‘develop’ in the way that the German masters taught us, and meet them on their own terms, they communicate a sense of contentment with the world. Grieg himself was touchingly realistic about his piano pieces: ‘Bach and Beethoven erected temples and churches in the heights. I only wanted to build dwellings in which people might feel happy and at home.’ Some might say this shows a lack of artistic ambition, while others may think that an artist could achieve nothing finer. One of Grieg’s own favourites was the very first piece from the first set of Lyric Pieces, op. 12: the ‘Arietta’. It has almost the character of a nursery rhyme, with simple two-bar phrases, though in the middle of the piece there is suddenly an intensification of the expression when little phrases reach upward and sink back to a soft cushion of Romantic harmony. The final two-bar phrase is cut in half, drifting off into thought after only one bar. Over three decades later, Grieg ended the whole Lyric series with a ‘Remembrance’ of this Arietta, in which it is transformed into a graceful waltz, passing slowly through various keys as if trying to identify a memory more precisely. In the op. 43 set from 1887, ‘Butterfly’ has become a much-loved piece of piano repertoire. The fluttering movements are depicted with a gentle volatility which reminds one of Schumann. As often with Grieg, the prevailing atmosphere of happiness is shadowed now and then by a tinge of melancholy derived perhaps from the modal scales of folk music. ‘Butterfly’ illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Grieg’s piano writing; its charming pictorial qualities are slightly marred by its tendency to repeat ideas once too often. Schumann comes to mind again in Grieg’s ‘Little Bird’, no. 4 from the op. 43 set. Grieg’s little bird chirps and hops about cheerfully, and even the moment when the birdsong finds a sinister echo in the bass doesn’t seem threatening. In contrast, Schumann’s much earlier ‘Vogel als Prophet’ (Prophet Bird, from Waldszenen) conjures up a much stranger forest with equally simple brushstrokes. In the op. 47 set from 1888, ‘Melody’ employs a folk-like drone bass of open fifths, while in the right hand a modal melody descends sadly. Eight-bar phrases 182


are skilfully expanded so that in the middle there is a long rise to the climactic point. Here again, the impatient pianist may find themselves wishing that Grieg had thought of something else to do than simply repeat all the material, but there is no denying the appeal of this haunting piece. In op. 54 from 1891 we find the famous ‘March of the Trolls’ which imagines the grotesque, naughty mythical creatures said to inhabit Norwegian caves and mountains. One of the more technically demanding pieces, it uses staccato chromatic phrases to depict the cackling of the trolls. Again, a folk-like bass is composed mainly of stamping fifths. The central section brings a sharp change of tone with a pleasant lyrical episode, a reminder perhaps that trolls can be sweet as well as menacing. ‘Notturno’, one of the loveliest pieces in the set, is a more complex piece with an episode of birdsong in the middle followed by a flowing section remarkably like part of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ written in the same year (though not published until 1905). ‘Bell-ringing’ (or in the much more onomatopoeic Norwegian, ‘Klokkeklang’) is a daringly simple evocation of bells resonating across a valley. Here we see very plain rhythms and the ‘open fifths’ of folk music being used as the primary material for an evocation that could almost be a piece of minimalist music from a century later. ‘Homesickness’ from op. 56 of 1893 uses modal folk melody in its outer sections to evoke a mood of sad reflection. In the middle, with oscillating fifths in the bass, there is a contrasting section, even more strongly modal with its sharpened fourth (A sharp in the key of E major) and reminiscent of one of the young men’s jumping contests which are sometimes part of Norwegian folk events; here, however, the jumping is pianissimo and played with the ‘una corda’ (soft) pedal, as if it is all going on in memory rather than in the present. ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ (from the 1897 set) was written to commemorate Grieg and his wife Nina’s silver wedding anniversary. Troldhaugen (Hill of the Trolls) was the name of their summer villa outside Bergen. Regularly voted Grieg’s most popular piano piece in surveys run by radio stations and magazines, this is one of the longest of the Lyric Pieces. The accompaniment of folk fiddles is easily imagined from the rhythmic open fifths in the accompaniment. One of Grieg’s most catchy and jovial melodies leads on to sections in which one can 183


imagine various groups of people jumping, dancing and jostling while the general excitement gathers pace and bells ring out jubilantly at the climax. The central episode is a peaceful moment of repose, after which it all happens again, ending with a few bars of distant bells which recall the simple effect of the earlier ‘Klokkeklang’. Grieg recorded this piece himself in 1903 (missing out the slow middle section). His performance shows how little we can assume about how people used to play in ‘the old days’, for he takes the piece at a tremendous pace, making light of the technical difficulties.

GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845–1924) 52. Piano Quartet no. 1 in C minor, op. 15 Writing a piano quartet (for piano, violin, viola and cello) may seem a slightly obscure choice for a young composer hoping to make his mark, but in fact the mid-to-late nineteenth century was the heyday of the piano quartet. It had hardly been in the limelight since Mozart’s two masterworks in the genre, but was revived by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Dvořák and Brahms, whose third piano quartet (also in C minor) was written just four years before Fauré’s first and may have inspired him. A more immediate influence was Saint-Saëns, who had taught Fauré at school and whose own piano quartet was premiered in 1875, the same year in which Brahms published his third piano quartet. Unlike many of the other leading French composers, Fauré did not study at the Paris Conservatoire. From the age of nine, he attended the École Niedermeyer, whose mission was to provide France with church organists and choirmasters. Its education was focused on traditions such as Gregorian chant and religious music of the Renaissance. This emphasised a very different set of musical qualities than the ones sweeping western Europe in Fauré’s day. The austere long lines of Gregorian chant had a profound influence on his style which can be traced right through his career. Indeed, the influence seemed to grow deeper, and the music of Fauré’s later years strongly recalls the pure, solemn lines of mediaeval music which seem designed to go on forever in a cycle of endless praise. 184


When Fauré was a teenager, Saint-Saëns took over as head of piano studies at the school. ‘After allowing the lessons to run over,’ Fauré recalled, ‘he would go to the piano and reveal to us those works of the masters from which the rigorous classical nature of our programme of study kept us at a distance and who, moreover, in those far-off years, were scarcely known.’ These were composers such as Schumann, Wagner and Liszt whose sensual, personal and dramatic styles must have been a breath of fresh air for the young students of old church music. SaintSaëns became a lifelong friend and supporter of Fauré, helping him to get jobs and promoting his compositions. During the 1870s, Fauré began attending the Paris salons of music-loving patrons who hosted performances of new music. He was a regular at the gatherings of the celebrated mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, and wrote his first piano and violin sonata for Pauline’s violinist son Paul. He also fell in love with Pauline’s daughter Marianne. They got engaged, but at around the time Fauré was at work on his first piano quartet, Marianne broke off the engagement. For a while Fauré was very upset; biographers have said that he vented his feelings in the passionate slow movement of the C minor piano quartet. Ultimately, however, he was philosophical, saying that perhaps it was all for the best as the opera-loving Viardot family ‘would have persuaded me to alter my course’. This course was for instrumental music, particularly chamber music, then as now considered ‘not lucrative’, but closer to Fauré’s heart than the glamorous world of opera. Right from the start of the first piano quartet, written in 1879, there is evidence of Fauré’s beloved church modes: the opening theme is in C minor but with a flattened ‘leading note’ of B flat instead of B natural, giving it a slightly antique flavour. The piano supplies the harmonies on the offbeats, a device Fauré uses elsewhere in the quartet. These offbeat rhythms produce a ‘modern’, almost jazzy feeling which contrasts pleasingly with the austere melodic lines. Like Brahms and Schumann, he often uses the strings as a self-contained group, the piano providing texture and rhythmic excitement through flowing and sparkling arpeggios. In the middle section he opens up a more flexible approach, bringing all four instruments into conversation on the subject of the main themes and allotting some of the loveliest material to the piano before it is passed to the strings. 185


The Scherzo is one of Faure’s most masterly movements, a gossamer-light few minutes begun by pizzicato strings pricking out the main beats before the piano runs amok among them in the most charmingly nonchalant way. Passages of triple time alternate rapidly with passages in a sterner duple time, suggesting that some of the participants would like to impose a bit of order on proceedings, but are constantly swept aside by the sheer élan of the dance. In the middle there is a sensuous episode in B flat major where it’s the piano’s turn to touch in the main ‘pizzicato’ beats while muted strings sweep slowly by in a perfumed haze. The French pianist Marguerite Long, who studied Fauré’s music with the composer, reported that the slow movement was the sorrowful aftermath of his break-up with Marianne Viardot, but other friends of Fauré’s have countered that he was never one to put his emotions on public display. Indeed, the slow movement breathes the world of the antique once again, its emotion nobly restrained. The stately introduction leads to a most beautiful lyrical theme announced by the violin, with swaying triplet accompaniment. It develops into an intense conversation between all four instruments. When the stately theme returns, it does so over a filigree piano part which gives the whole reprise a more fluid and romantic feel. In the closing bars, Fauré moves the lyrical theme two quavers later in the bar so that its opening octave, now sung by the piano, seems more of a regretful sigh than it did before. The finale was revised by Fauré after he had played the piano in its 1880 premiere, and it is unclear how much the published finale differs from what the original audience heard. The version we know today has an irresistible momentum. Its opening seems to take the theme of the slow movement a stage further, knitting together the phrases into a single sweep across an octave. Once again, rhythmic excitement is provided partly through competing duple (on strings) and triple (on piano) rhythms. The piano writing is virtuosic, requiring the pianist not only to leap about the octaves and cross hands at speed but also to play darting left-hand figuration which stretches across wide intervals of a tenth, not easily manageable by small hands. In the middle there is an episode which seems to hark back to the mood of the Scherzo; the string group quietly picks out the main beats while the piano intro186


duces a slow, mysterious theme hinting at another, larger kind of metre. This unusual effect may well have inspired Ravel, who constructs along similar lines an even more breathtaking effect in the scherzo of his Piano Trio, a slow theme majestically appearing out of nowhere in the midst of frantic activity. Fauré’s finale ends with the apotheosis of its second, lyrical theme, inflected almost to the end with an ‘ancient’ modal character. He went on to write another piano quartet, two piano quintets and a piano trio, all of them addictive in their way for musicians on Fauré’s wavelength. His melodic lines become more and more refined, the rise and fall of tension more exquisitely controlled. But perhaps he never wrote anything which surpasses his first piano quartet in its outpouring of warmth and energy.

53. Dolly Suite, op. 56, for Piano Duet The six pieces of Dolly are a touching glimpse into Fauré’s private life. ‘Dolly’ was the nickname of a little girl named Hélène Bardac, daughter of the singer Emma Bardac. Emma has the unusual distinction of having been the muse of not one but two great composers: Fauré (whose mistress she was for several years) and Debussy (whom she later married). When Fauré met Emma in 1892, she was married to the banker Sigismond Bardac. Fauré was married to Marie Fremiet, but he and Emma began an affair which was of great importance to him. Not long after they met, he wrote his splendid song cycle La Bonne Chanson for her. Emma’s daughter ‘Dolly’ Bardac was born in 1892 and the following year Fauré began writing little piano duets (for four hands at one piano) as birthday gifts for her. Knowing of Emma’s affair with Fauré and seeking an explanation for his attachment to the little girl, historians have wondered whether Dolly could have been his daughter, but it seems unlikely. Whatever the reason, he marked Dolly’s first few birthdays and other family occasions by sending her these pieces in manuscript. Why piano duets for a little girl, one might wonder? Who did Fauré imagine was going to play them – him and Emma Bardac; Emma and Hélène when she was old enough to play the piano; Hélène and Fauré, even? Could they have been 187


a coded message that although he was not present in the household, he was ‘by her side’ as a piano duet partner would be? Or did the duets serve a double purpose of being personal gifts for his mistress’s daughter while also catering to the public’s appetite for piano duets? In any event, the duets did make it into print in 1897 as the Dolly Suite. Fauré, who disliked devising names for his pieces (his son recalled that Fauré would much rather have called them ‘Piece number suchand-such’) relented on this occasion and gave each piece a picturesque title. ‘Berceuse’ (Cradle Song) was written many years earlier with another title for another little girl, daughter of a friend, but Fauré revised it, renamed it, and presented it to Emma for Dolly’s first birthday in 1893. It is well known in Britain because it was the sign-off music for a long-running radio programme, Listen with Mother. Straightaway it takes us into the special world of Fauré’s long, pure melodic lines with serenely rippling accompaniments. In the middle there is a delicious key change from E major to C, the bass note dropping to produce a new harmonic colour. The style of writing, with the melody line in the top part and the rippling harmonies in the bottom part, may give unwary duet players the impression that the top part is always going to be the easy one, but after the first piece the writing becomes much more evenly distributed. ‘Mi-a-ou’ is a fast waltz, its title deriving from Dolly’s childish attempts to pronounce the words ‘Monsieur Raoul’, a mock-formal way of referring to her brother Raoul. (It was the publisher who introduced the hyphens, perhaps to show the pronunciation, but this has given rise to the erroneous belief that the piece is about a cat.) The waltz is transparently scored and charmingly light on its feet, with frequent use of cross-rhythms where the music moves in patterns of two beats within a three-beat metre. Towards the end a slightly slower phrase seems to quote a nursery rhyme or song, swept away by a cheeky coda. The final few bars will test the precision reflexes of the duet team. ‘Le jardin de Dolly’ (Dolly’s Garden), a New Year’s Day present for 1895, continues the beautiful melodic writing of the ‘Berceuse’, this time with piquant inflections which often give the impression that a phrase rises up in one key and descends in another. Near the beginning (bars 7–8) Fauré quotes the theme of the finale of his first sonata for violin and piano, op. 13, written in 1877. The sonata 188


was his first really successful piece, but we don’t know why he plants a cutting from it in Dolly’s garden. ‘Kitty-Valse’ is a waltz which should really be ‘Ketty-Valse’, written to depict Dolly’s pet dog, Ketty. By this time Dolly was four and liked to dance with Ketty leaping about to keep her company. Ketty must have been a very graceful dog, judging from this suave waltz. In the middle section Fauré introduces more crossrhythms of two beats within the three-beat metre; here again he turns the melodic line as it descends to make us feel we are coming down a different staircase than the one we went up. ‘Tendresse’ (Tenderness) is the richest piece harmonically, full of gorgeous chromatic shadings. The writing, particularly for the lower part, is noticeably denser and more sensuous, as if it were one of his Barcarolles or Nocturnes for solo piano. In the middle, there is a courteous dialogue between the top part and the lower part, almost like one of Poulenc’s tongue-in-cheek conversations between two wind instruments. ‘Le Pas Espagnol’ (The Spanish Walk) is in the French nineteenth-century tradition of conjuring up a Spanish atmosphere, and may have been in part a friendly tribute to Emmanuel Chabrier whose orchestral piece ‘España’ had been a huge success. ‘Le pas espagnol’ is actually the term for a kind of high-stepping dressage movement made by a horse; in ‘the Spanish walk’ the horse is trained to raise each foreleg and point it in the air before placing it down. In either Dolly’s house or Fauré’s there was a bronze statue of a horse with its front leg raised in such a manner, and the pianist Marguerite Long recalled that Dolly liked it. (As the statue was by the sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet, Fauré’s father-in-law, it seems more likely that it was in Fauré’s house.) He and Dolly’s family may even have seen a horse doing the ‘Spanish walk’ at a circus – in 1899 the Parisian artist Toulouse-Lautrec drew a top-hatted rider on a brown circus horse being put through its paces in a picture called ‘Au Cirque – Le Pas espagnol’ (At the circus – the Spanish walk). Fauré affectionately evokes Spain with a fast dance in triple time, with accents or perhaps clapping on unexpected beats and half-beats. This final number is often played very fast, but if one imagines the prancing movement of the horse, it seems clear that the tempo should allow for elegance. In later years 189


the composer enjoyed playing the Dolly Suite with lots of different duet partners including the children of his friends.

LEOŠ JANÁCˇEK (1854–1928) 54. On an Overgrown Path, Book 1 Janáček was a unique voice in early twentieth-century music, truculently pursuing a path of expressive intensity based on the folk music and speech rhythms of his native Moravia. Although he is often counted alongside Dvořák and Smetana as ‘a Czech composer’, it is important to note that Janáček’s Moravia is further to the east than Bohemia (where Dvořák and Smetana came from) and has its own distinct character, less influenced by Germany and more by the lands to the east of it, such as Russia with its Byzantine links and the chants of its Orthodox Church. Janáček had a lifelong interest in Moravian folk music, travelling deep into the country to collect and notate folk songs which he later published and arranged for various instruments. For him, folk music was not a light-hearted diversion from classical composition – it was something deeply serious. He sought a closer connection with the music of the people. But the melodies he collected were only a part of his fascination with folk music. He believed that folk songs could not be understood through their musical elements alone: only the words and their spoken rhythm could explain why the music was shaped as it was. He tried to note down the rhythms and ‘speech melodies’ of scraps of conversation he heard on his travels. Many people imagine that tunes are made up first and have words put to them later, but Janáček held the opposite view, believing that the words, and the way they were spoken in that region, dictated the shape of the tunes. He had a low opinion of artfully composed ‘folk songs’ organised into phrases of regular length, because people do not speak like that. He wanted to capture the natural cadence of speech in his music, which meant tracing not only the rhythm of the words but also the rise and fall in people’s voices. Janáček’s melodies have a deliberately 190


erratic character, with irregular phrases, repetitions, unpredictable pauses, changes of direction, incomplete statements, sudden silences, and so on. ‘I am certain,’ he wrote in 1926, ‘that all melodic and rhythmical mysteries of music are to be explained solely from rhythmical and melodic points of view on the basis of the melodic curves of speech.’ As one might expect, Janáček was keenly interested in writing music for voices (his operas are probably his greatest legacy), but he had a phase, from 1900 to 1912, when he wrote quite a lot of piano music. Even though it was instrumental music, he persisted in applying the same ‘natural speech’ guidelines to his melodies and rhythms. He also included musical representations of the sounds of nature, often small repetitive sounds as might be made by insects or birds. His musical language was to some extent also a mirror of his own nature, which by all accounts was somewhat brusque, stubborn and defiant. ‘A tough nut!’ recalled Czech conductor Václav Talich. The attempt to represent song in piano music was of course not new, but the kind of song we often encounter in piano music is ‘art song’ or trained singing such as operatic aria, Lieder, recitative or folk song of the manicured and tidiedup variety. Janáček’s insistence on deriving his musical lines from the intonation of everyday speech or untutored singing therefore gives his piano music a very unusual flavour, the more so because his model was Moravian speech. Had he taken his notebook into the streets of New York or London, the way people spoke there would probably have led him to somewhat different shapes and rhythms. I have wondered whether, with the passing of time and the shifting of populations, people in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) still speak just as they did in the early years of the twentieth century. In its own way, Janáček’s music may be a little time capsule. The piano composition for which he is most loved is On an Overgrown Path, Book One. (There is a second book, less frequently played but full of interest.) The ten pieces of Book One began life as a contribution of a few little pieces to a volume of harmonium music. Over a few years the collection grew and was designated for the piano instead. Originally the pieces had no titles, but Janáček later agreed to supply some. They are very much of the kind that Schumann might have 191


used: ‘Our Evenings’, ‘A Blown-away Leaf ’, ‘Come with Us!’, ‘Words Fail!’, ‘Unspeakable Anguish’ and so on, domestic portraits with hints of pain beneath the surface. In fact, this was also the period in which Janáček’s twenty-one-yearold daughter Olga, who had always been frail, became seriously ill and died. It is not clear exactly how closely the Overgrown Path mirrors the events of her illness, but many of the pieces convey a strong sense of foreboding. The first piece, ‘Our Evenings’, is a good example of Janáček’s typical piano writing, mixing major and minor harmonies with mysterious-sounding modes. The lyrical section at the beginning seems peaceful, but moves in unpredictable phrases of five bars, three bars, three bars, and so on. In the next section, the smooth phrases are knocked aside by quiet chattering semiquavers and loudly repeated notes whose energy comes out of nowhere. In the final Adagio, the chattering rhythmic figure is pushed into a subdued middle voice as the lyrical atmosphere makes an uncertain return, hovering sadly between major and minor. In ‘A Blown-away Leaf ’ we begin to see melodic phrases which are terminated suddenly, leaving only fractured rhythms to carry the music forward. ‘Come with Us!’ shows the composer varying a little phrase (bars 3–4) by changing its pitch, speeding it up, and varying its rhythm so that six notes become eleven in the same number of beats. In ‘The Madonna of Frýdek’ (the composer’s grandfather was born in the village of Frýdek), Janáček juxtaposes solemn chordal phrases with episodes of devotional singing which start in the distance over shimmering accompaniment and come nearer to us with each repetition. ‘They Chattered Like Swallows’ begins with regular-length phrases but quickly deviates into eccentric modifications of the opening phrase, widening its intervals, shortening its units, introducing fragments of melody under the chattering rhythms, varying the tempo capriciously without making it clear why. In ‘Words Fail!’ the battle between melodic phrases and quiet obsessive rhythms continues. The point at which one turns into the other is kept obscure; the pianist must be ready to flip rapidly between moods of melancholy and nervous anxiety. Those two elements run in parallel in ‘Good Night!’ Slow and lyrical melodic lines wend their way through the piece despite the constant attrition of tiny rhythmic units in almost every bar, keeping us at arm’s length from the 192


peaceful night we hope for. This technique is pushed further in ‘Unspeakable Anguish’ in which drooping fragments of fragile melody try to find space amid the insistent chirruping of a rhythm which recalls the implacable song of crickets on a summer night. ‘In Tears’ proceeds with obsessive repetition of a little melodic phrase which is moved up and down in pitch, passes through some distant keys and back to the home key without ever finding where it was going. The final piece is ‘The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!’ This is the best-known of the pieces and probably the most haunting (in Czech culture, the call of the barn owl is a sign of ill omen). It is a little drama of several elements: the restless, leaping figure we hear at the very start (could it be the beating of wings?) which settles down into a quiet oscillation; the two-note descending figure which represents the haunting ‘hoo-hoo’ of the owl (actually, the barn owl has a kind of screech; it’s the tawny owl that has a two-note call); and a hymn-like section which seems to evoke a choir singing in a church nearby, or perhaps just a recollection of a happier time. When this hymn- or chorale-like figure first appears, its song is punctuated by mysterious one-beat silences, like a heart skipping a beat. But when the chorale is heard again later in the piece, the silence is infiltrated by the restless motif of the opening. Gradually the hymn gains strength and seems to be seeking to reassure us. But its final statement is immediately followed by a return to the bleak atmosphere of the opening, the warning cry of the barn owl being the last thing we hear.

ISAAC ALBÉNIZ (1860–1909) 55. Iberia The Catalan composer Isaac Albéniz, a contemporary of Debussy, was a child prodigy both as pianist and composer. His first public concert was at the age of four, and his first published composition came at the age of eight. His father was keen to promote his young son’s talent and arranged for him to tour extensively, perhaps considering him a sort of little Mozart. It seems that Isaac himself was happy to embrace the life of a performing musician; before the age of twelve he 193


had twice run away, on both occasions somehow managing to earn money by playing the piano in novel ways such as blindfold, or sitting on the floor with his back to the piano and playing the keyboard with hands crossed behind his shoulders. His ordinary piano-playing was even more impressive. His restless spirit meant that he was not well suited to life as a conservatoire student, and he moved around a lot as a young man, studying in Leipzig and Brussels. In his diary he recounted playing to Liszt in Budapest, but historians have marked this down as a tall tale because it seems fairly clear that Liszt was in Weimar at the time. At any rate, Liszt’s extrovert style of piano-playing and composition greatly appealed to Albéniz and left their mark on his writing. Eventually Albéniz found himself in Barcelona, where he studied composition with Felipe Pedrell. Pedrell had devoted himself to cultivating a Spanish national school of composition drawing its inspiration from Spanish church music of the Renaissance and Baroque, and from Spanish folk songs, of which he was a noted collector. His belief that Spanish music could only thrive if it reconnected to its past and to the music of its people was enormously influential, not only on Albéniz but also on Granados and de Falla. It is worth noting that the Barcelona audiences of the day did not share Pedrell’s views; Italian opera was all the rage and everyone was flocking to hear Verdi and Donizetti. The cultural climate was conservative, and a young composer may not have felt that it was the best place to be radical. In 1890 Albéniz moved to London, and in 1893 to Paris, which became his base for the rest of his life. There he was friendly with Debussy, Chausson, Fauré, Dukas, d’Indy and others. He admired the new wave of French composers and their vocabulary of unusual modes and scales, particularly the whole-tone scale as used by Debussy. Albéniz began to experiment with a more refined musical language, using Spanish folk music and dance as his basis but expressing himself in a sophisticated Parisian style. Ironically, it was in Paris that he wrote the masterpiece that really vindicated Pedrell’s ideas: Iberia, a set of twelve substantial piano pieces fired by nostalgia for Spain and respect for Spanish folk music. Iberia is no chocolate-box picture of Spain; it’s a genuine attempt to bring some of the rawer and more vigorous types of Spanish folk music into the concert hall. Olivier Messiaen described it as ‘the masterpiece of Spanish music’. Although 194


Albéniz was from the north-east corner of Spain, one of his great achievements is the evocation of flamenco, the gypsy music of Andalusia in the Spanish south. This great tradition with its complex rhythms, its passionate vocal declamations and its distinctive dance styles was not easy to transfigure into piano music, but Albéniz probably came closer than anyone else has. While his earlier piano pieces are more or less playable by amateur pianists, Iberia marks a leap into virtuosity of the most daunting kind. Perhaps the intensity of Albéniz’s feelings compelled him to cram his music with layer upon layer of incident and embroidery; it seems symbolic of his teeming imagination that he was drawn to key signatures with a great many sharps and flats, as in the rarely heard A flat minor (seven flats!) of the opening piece, ‘Evocación’. He often writes on three staves, because the density of the layers is too great for two staves to accommodate all the notes for which he has to find room. Debussy, when he heard ‘El Albaicín’ performed in 1908, commented, ‘Never before has music given us such diverse and colourful impressions. It’s as if your eyes close because you are seeing too many images.’ Iberia is in four books of three pieces each, not designed to be performed all at once, or in any particular order. Each piece is the evocation of a scene, a mood, a market, a particular district, a seaport, a religious procession, a jostling crowd. The raw folk material which Albéniz used as his inspiration is transmuted into his own Francophile musical language but, remarkably, without losing the intensity of the flamenco original. The sound of guitars and ‘palmas’ (rhythmic flamenco handclapping) are brought in to the music, not as touristic colour, but as serious and essential. Just as in flamenco, an absolutely dependable – indeed implacable – rhythm is the heart of the matter. Melody plays a subordinate role and is largely represented by melodic fragments rather than tunes you can go away and sing. What really sticks in the listener’s mind are the pounding, stamping rhythms of the Andalusian dances, proud and pitiless in character. Albéniz has wonderfully captured their passionate harshness, and as we listen it is easy to imagine the hard southern sunlight which inspired Debussy to write ‘La Puerta del Vino’ from his second book of Preludes. The plush cushioning of Romantic music seems far away here; energy, stamina and determination are all. Iberia is so difficult technically that live performances of its most intimidating pieces, such as ‘Triana’ or ‘Lavapiés’, 195


are few and far between. Debussy thought that the finest piece was the final one, ‘Eritaña’, a tribute to an inn near Seville where flamenco artists performed. It is tempting to feel regret that Albéniz’s virtuosic style of writing puts the majority of Iberia outside the reach of most pianists, but one can feel the pressure of his desire – the desire of an exile – to portray Andalusia in its true complexity. As the New York Times dryly said when the Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha gave her masterful interpretation of Iberia in New York in 1998, ‘There is really nothing in Isaac Albéniz’s “Iberia” that a good three-handed pianist could not master, given unlimited years of practice and permission to play at half tempo.’

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862–1918) 56. Images, Series 1 Debussy is often considered an ‘Impressionist’ composer whose music is dreamy, pastel and improvisatory. But the French pianist Vlado Perlemuter, who studied with Ravel (and with whom I studied in Paris), insisted it was nothing of the kind. On the contrary, he explained, Debussy’s music was extremely precise and must be played with the utmost clarity and fidelity to the composer’s markings. If this remark seems surprising, it is because we underestimate the skill with which Debussy concealed his meticulous working methods. From his twenties, Debussy was part of a circle of composers, artists and poets who discussed esoteric theories and their use in the arts. Like Erik Satie, Debussy was interested in Rosicrucianism, then in vogue in certain Paris circles. Rosicrucians regarded themselves as guardians of ancient philosophical secrets and believed that music was a scientific art based on number and proportion. Debussy himself said that ‘music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are a part of infinity.’ In his ground-breaking book, Debussy in Proportion: A Musical Analysis, Roy Howat demonstrates that Debussy must consciously have used the Golden Section (a ratio used in art and architecture to produce proportions pleasing to the human eye) to calculate a structure and proportions for some of his pieces, enabling him to place their focal points 196


at precise intervals analogous to the proportions of, say, a Greek temple or Renaissance church. To think of Debussy as someone secretive about using mathematical principles in his music is difficult for those of his fans who prefer to see him as a ‘natural’, instinctive composer. But as Howat points out, ‘virtually no composers before Schoenberg explained their precise techniques’. All great works of art are organised on principles of one kind or another, and we might be surprised if we knew the working methods of some of our favourite composers. ( J. S. Bach, for example, is thought to have been deeply interested in using mathematical ideas and number symbolism in his music.) If Debussy chose to use mathematics in calculating the relationship of one musical unit to another, it doesn’t downgrade the role of his imagination. Indeed, if he used mathematical schemes and yet succeeds in giving us the impression that his music tumbles out with innocent flair, it is a tribute to his creative methods, for many composers (especially in the age of technology) have used complicated calculations and produced only a dry result. There is something very pleasing about the ebb and flow of Debussy’s music, which is probably inseparable from his skilful use of proportions. The first series of Images was completed in August 1905 when Debussy was on holiday in Eastbourne on the south coast of England. He had mentioned them to his publisher Jacques Durand that summer, but explained there would be a delay in sending them because he had had to rewrite the first piece ‘based on different ideas and in accordance with the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry.’ Evidently he was pleased with the result, for after he had sent them to Durand he asked, ‘Have you played the Images? Without false vanity, I think these three pieces work well and will take their place in piano literature . . . to the left of Schumann or to the right of Chopin . . . “as you like it”.’ (This was probably a joke: his initial, D, would mean that his music would be shelved between C and S!) There was another important influence too – the music of the Javanese gamelan, which fascinated Debussy and his friends when an Indonesian gamelan orchestra came to perform at the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1889. (A set of gamelan instruments had been presented to the Paris Conservatoire in 1887, but 197


the Great Exhibition was probably Debussy’s first opportunity to hear gamelan music performed by experts.) The gamelan orchestra, largely made up of bronze gongs and metallic instruments, made an impression not only through its sound but also through its spirit: playing gamelan was a community enterprise. There were no individual virtuosos, and yet the combined effect was highly complex. Debussy loved this intricate music built from layers of sound moving simultaneously, guided by arithmetical rules and patterns. Gongs of various sizes defined the rhythmic cycle. Large gongs marked out periods of eight beats; gongs of diminishing sizes marked every four beats, two beats or one beat. Meanwhile, middle-sized instruments such as metallophones (like a xylophone with bronze keys, struck with a wooden hammer) played a melodic pattern at medium speed while smaller instruments, such as bowed string instruments and bamboo flutes, elaborated on the pattern at faster speeds. This characteristic texture, with low instruments moving slowly and higher instruments moving at progressively faster speeds, made its first appearance in Debussy’s mature piano music in ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes (1903), clearly an evocation of Javanese music. By instructing that ‘Pagodes’ should be played ‘presque sans nuance’ (almost without nuance), Debussy conveys a sense of inscrutability. The traditional Western sense of key relationships is dissolved; pentatonic harmonies float serenely along without striving for change. Far from finding this of limited interest, Debussy was fascinated: ‘Do you not remember the Javanese music,’ he had written to his friend Pierre Louÿs in 1895, ‘able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades . . . which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts?’ In Images, Series 1, the gamelan influence is more subtle, and is integrated into a flexible palette of techniques, but echoes of gamelan music can be found in all the pieces. In the opening of ‘Reflets dans l’Eau’, for example, the bass tolls the bell, or gong, marking the slow pulse. In the middle voice we hear the melodic motif, in this case the three notes A flat-F-E flat (mysteriously described by Debussy to pianist Marguerite Long as ‘a pebble falling into a pond’), while in the treble we hear smaller instruments (the fingers of the right hand) elaborating on this melodic motif. 198


In all three pieces, Debussy uses a variety of harmonic devices: simple harmonies based on the major scale; pentatonic harmonies (a five-note scale often found in oriental and ‘folk’ music, and a sound we can find by playing only the black notes of the piano); chromatic harmonies, often moving up and down in semitone steps; and whole-tone harmonies in which the musical steps climb not by a mixture of tones and semitones (as in the major scale) but by whole tones only, resulting in a mysteriously ‘Eastern’ sonority. In general, when Debussy switches from one type of harmonic organisation to another it is to signal that the music is passing from a stable to a dynamic phase of its development (or vice versa). The second piece, ‘Hommage à Rameau’, harks back to what Debussy perceived as a golden age of French music. ‘I’m delighted about your enthusiasm for Rameau,’ he wrote to a friend in 1906. ‘He deserves it for all the qualities in his music which ought to have protected us against Gluck’s deceitful grandiloquence and Wagner’s bombastic metaphysics.’ When two acts of Rameau’s 1737 opera Castor et Pollux were performed in Paris in 1903, Debussy was very moved by the calm and sincerity of the music. Interestingly, it struck him not as stiff or antique, but as ‘breathing an atmosphere of tragedy which yet remains human. We are not so much conscious of the robes and helmets as of people weeping as we might weep ourselves.’ In his ‘homage’ he evokes the restrained dignity with the measured tread of a sarabande, a stately French eighteenth-century dance. In the middle section, something stirs: it is as if the narrator cannot stop himself from making some personal comment. It subsides again to allow the quiet sarabande to return. Once more, in this piece we can often hear the different layers of gamelan-like movement: slow-moving belllike basses, tenor parts moving at medium speed, and faster movement in the treble. ‘Mouvement’, the third and most obviously virtuosic piece, stays with the world of eighteenth-century France by evoking the rattling merriment of, for example, François Couperin’s charming ‘moto perpetuo’ harpsichord pieces such as ‘Le Tic-Toc-Choc’. ‘Mouvement’ is in three-part form with the first and third sections, straightforwardly based in C major, echoing one another, while the middle section, hovering in F sharp, follows a different and more dynamic course. 199


For the enjoyment of the piece, it is not necessary to know that precise calculations underlie the lengths of different sections, but they do shed a fascinating light on Debussy’s mental processes. Roy Howat has pointed out that Debussy calculated the proportions using Golden Sections: ‘the main climax at bars 109–10, just before the recapitulation, is placed over the piece’s GS (the total of bars is 177, GS of which is 109). Also, the beginning of the central section after 66 bars lies within a bar of GS on the way to the arrival of the main climax (GS of 108 is 66.7).’ Gamelan-wise, there are also halfway divisions: the low bass C at bar 34 tolls the midpoint of the opening section, and the low C at bar 144 tolls the midpoint of the closing one, while the ‘En augmentant’ section at bar 89 marks the halfway point of the middle section itself. Again, the outer sections use simple harmonies while the middle section (bar 67 onwards) accumulates energy through the use of chromatic harmonies in more than one key at once. The closing section or coda of the piece (bar 156) switches to whole-tone harmonies and employs its own mini-Golden-Section ratios of 4 + 7 + 11 bars as the music ascends impassively into higher and higher regions before evaporating. These are just a few of the simpler examples of Debussy’s use of Golden Sections. We must bear in mind, though, that the way mathematical divisions work on paper is not equivalent to how they work when music is flowing in time. They may be a working method for the composer, and a very potent one, but when we listen to music we can only analyse its proportions once it has finished, unlike when looking at a painting or a building, and it is probably impossible to discern proportions as you listen, especially once musical material starts attracting your attention in more immediate ways.

57. Preludes, Book 2 Debussy’s two books of Preludes, twenty-four in all, are one of the great achievements of twentieth-century piano music. No doubt they were inspired by the 24 Preludes of Chopin, whose music Debussy adored, but they do not stand in Chopin’s shadow. For me, Debussy’s Preludes have never lost their fascination and, indeed, seem to remain magically fresh. One can sense that Debussy had a 200


very rich mental landscape and a wide consciousness of music from the mediaeval to the exotic and from folk music to cabaret. His interest in numbers and in mathematical principles helped him to give a pleasing structure to artistic compositions. His musical vocabulary contains all kinds of scales and modes, oriental influences, Spanish folk music, Impressionist aesthetics, music-hall sauciness, poetic intensity, an acute sensitivity to the sounds and sights of nature, and an ear for piano sonority which has rarely been equalled. The French pianist Marguerite Long, in her memoir At the Piano with Debussy, tells us that Debussy said ‘One should forget that the piano has hammers’, meaning that it should never sound percussive. Intriguingly, he also said that ‘the hands are not meant to hover in the air over the piano, but should enter into it’. Many of his friends observed that when he played he seemed to have soft hands, keeping his fingers close to the keys and appearing to ‘mould’ the sound as if it were located in the keys themselves; they spoke of him ‘brushing’, ‘caressing’, ‘floating over’, ‘sinking into’ the keys. Of course there are passages which require attack, crispness, staccato, even hammering and glittering, but these are matched to particular moments in the music and are never to be taken as the basic sound. Now and then he does create a piece which is deliberately virtuosic, but most of the time his rapid figuration is used to create ‘atmosphere’, to conjure up water, wind, mist, or the weightless dances of fairies, and is more likely to be soft than loud. Although in Book 1 of his Preludes he gives some indication of fingering and pedalling, he gives none in Book 2 (by then, he felt that pedalling should vary from one piano to another and from one hall to another). Some years later, in the preface to his 1915 Études, he gave his famous advice, ‘Cherchons nos doigtés!’ (Let us find our own fingering!), which presumably must apply to Book 2 of the Preludes too. Just how little he was interested in enabling the pianist to assert themselves or impress the audience with traditional virtuosity is shown by the fact that the majority of preludes in both books begin ‘quietly’ or ‘very quietly’, and many of them end quietly too. Debussy once said he would like to have been a painter, and most of his preludes were inspired by literary or pictorial associations. He gave them titles, although in order not to constrain the listener’s imagination he put the titles at the 201


end (of course this is a trick that only works once!). Other famous composers of preludes such as Bach or Chopin had organised them according to key. Debussy probably had his own organisational principles, but characteristically he chose not to disclose them. (Here again, fascinating work has been done by Roy Howat in his book The Art of French Piano Music: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier to discover what some of those principles might be.) Certainly there is a subtle relationship between the key of one prelude and the key of the next, but it is not of an easily explicable kind. In Book 2 there seems to be a subdivision of the twelve into four groups of three, the third of each group being more extrovert in character. (This was a principle applied on a larger scale by J.S. Bach in his Goldberg Variations.) Debussy was an Anglophile; he loved London and its art galleries, he was a huge fan of Charles Dickens, and he holidayed in Eastbourne on the south coast. The English in turn were keen on Debussy, especially after they had seen him conduct his own music for the first time in London in 1908. Amateur pianists bought his first book of Preludes in large numbers when it appeared in 1910. When the second book came out in 1913, their enthusiasm was slightly more muted, but this may have been because Debussy’s musical language had become more elusive (one important new influence on him in the years between the two books of Preludes was the music of Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring ‘haunted’ Debussy after he heard it played on the piano at a private performance in 1912). Nevertheless, his fans enjoyed his continued use of English references such as Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of fairies, or Charles Dickens’s Mr Pickwick. Over the years, the second book of Preludes has come to be seen as perhaps even more poetical than the first. ‘Brouillards’ (Mists) sets us on Debussy’s adventurous new path right away with its use of two keys at once: here, the left hand plays chords based in C major while the right hand creates ‘mist’ around those chords with delicate arpeggios hinting at G flat major. This combination of keys a tritone apart (that is to say, three whole tones apart, long considered an incompatible harmonic pairing) is a favourite of Debussy’s, recurring throughout the Preludes. It suggests two different planes being juxtaposed, and creates a feeling of instability which Debussy uses to 202


poetic effect. It also introduces a pattern he uses in various places in the Preludes: the two hands interlocking as the left hand plays on the white notes and the right hand plays on the black notes in between them – for the pianist, a pleasing tactile sensation not unlike the finger-painting one did as a child. ‘Feuilles mortes’ (Dead Leaves), one of the few preludes that Debussy offered to perform himself, seems too sensuous to depict dead, dry leaves and is perhaps more an evocation of a sad mood experienced on an autumn walk. Rich chords are placed with great subtlety; simpler harmonies glide peacefully along, while sourer, more intense harmonies seem to set off ripples in the bass or inner parts. In the middle section Debussy gives this delightful instruction: ‘un peu plus allant et plus gravement expressif ’ (a bit more flowing and more gravely expressive), a perfect instance of opposites being combined to produce a fruitful tension. In the distance we seem to hear trumpets, almost like a sneaky reference to his friend Stravinsky’s Petrushka of 1911, or perhaps simply to the Parisian brass bands whose music drifts through the final bars of the twelfth prelude, ‘Feux d’artifice’. ‘La Puerta del Vino’ (The Wine Gate) is one of those evocations which led the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla to say admiringly that when Debussy portrayed Spain, ‘we are far from these serenades, madrileños and boleros by which the makers of supposedly Spanish music used to regale us; here it is truly Andalusia that he presents to us’ (even though Debussy had never been to Spain, apart from one brief trip to San Sebastián). The piece was inspired by a postcard Debussy had received from de Falla of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, showing one of its great stone gates in shadow with harsh sunlight striking the sand-coloured path beyond. He captures this duality in his prelude with soft but implacable drumming in the bass, while in the treble we hear the kind of husky singing associated with the ‘cante jondo’ or ‘deep singing’ of flamenco with its passionate improvised decorations of the melody line. He imitates the sound of strummed guitar chords with quickly snatched arpeggios. Sparing use of the pedal will help the clarity of the guitar and percussion effects. ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’ (The fairies are exquisite dancers) was inspired by Arthur Rackham’s colour plates, ‘Fairies in Kensington Gardens’ and ‘The Fairy’s Tightrope’, illustrations for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington 203


Gardens. ‘Fairies in Kensington Gardens’ was Barrie’s own favourite of the Rackham illustrations, and Debussy’s daughter Chouchou had a print of it hanging above her bed. One of the most enjoyable pieces to play, it uses unrelated keys piled on top of one another, a sparing use of bass notes and a subtle avoidance of harmonic resting places to create a sense of being weightless. Sometimes the fairies sway in a sensuous waltz, while at other moments they simply flit about. Most of the piece is very quiet with constant fluttering in one part or another, best achieved by minimal movements of the fingers, in close contact with the keys. ‘Bruyères’ (Heather) is written in a slightly simpler style that seems to hark back to the tranquil mood of ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (The girl with flaxen hair) from the first book of Preludes. It opens in pentatonic mode (such as you would hear if you played only the black notes of the piano keyboard) and moves back and forth between that and an open-sounding major scale with straightforward harmonies. Again and again we hear a graceful drooping phrase, perhaps more reminiscent of a long branch laden with blossoms than of the tougher little spikes of heather. ‘General Lavine – eccentric’ is a portrait of an American music-hall comedian, Ed Lavine, whose act Debussy had enjoyed in Paris. Lavine (‘The man who has soldiered all his life’) walked on stilts, juggled, and played the piano with his toes, activities easy to visualise when listening to the jaunty rhythms of this cakewalk. Near the beginning Debussy gives the poker-faced instruction ‘spirituel et discret’ (spirited and discreet) to guide one’s playing of the cheeky tune that creeps into the bass. In the middle section with its jazzy mutterings, Debussy twice seems to quote a fragment from Stephen Foster’s 1850 minstrel song ‘Camptown Races’, perhaps an allusion to Lavine’s American origin. It has been said that this is Debussy’s only portrait of an actual human being in the Preludes, but it is probably more accurate to think of it as a tribute to a fictional music-hall character. ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’ (The terrace for moonlit audiences), perhaps the finest achievement of the second book of Preludes, was inspired by reading a report in the newspaper Le Temps of the ceremonies surrounding George V being crowned Emperor of India. The first few very quiet notes may be an allusion to the French nursery rhyme ‘Au clair de la lune’ (In the moonlight), and 204


there is another instance of it a few bars later in the high treble, though perhaps the similarity to the nursery rhyme is just a coincidence. Moonlight seems to shimmer down on us in the form of curling phrases from on high, rich and sensuous chords in the middle part evoking velvets and shadows. Here there are no obvious ‘themes’, rather swaying phrases which seem to stir into life and then fall back into slumber. In the final bars there is a shift to a simple chanting rhythm in which high little bells tinkle out a final allusion to the nursery rhyme. ‘Ondine’ is the water sprite who leaves her watery home to live with a mortal man. Her graceful movement is portrayed mostly in the treble register, dance elements juxtaposed with the lapping of waves. In the middle, things take a more sinister turn: the bass becomes more active and the harmonies become sharper and sourer as a strange high motif composed mainly of repeated notes is heard in the treble. A moment later this same repeated-note motif is heard at half-speed in a new key and a seductive mood; then it regains its spiky quality, drops down into a low register, and suddenly seems to rear up at us, but to no avail: it disappears beneath the waves, and all we hear is the quiet lapping of water. It’s possible that Debussy intended a comparison to be made between this piece and Ravel’s ‘Ondine’, the first movement of Gaspard de la Nuit, composed a few years earlier. Ravel’s shimmering ‘Ondine’ is much more fearsome technically, a quality which Debussy may have felt he could outshine with his own brand of supple charm (and playability). ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq, PPMPC’ is a homage to Dickens’s humorous character Mr Pickwick, the ‘Perpetual President Member of the Pickwick Club’. His English origin is saluted by Debussy with a quotation from ‘God Save the Queen’ (if we are in Dickens’s era, or ‘God Save the King’ if we are in Debussy’s) played in the bass at the beginning. Mr Pickwick’s well-meaning but slightly foolish nature is portrayed in short sections with frequent shifts of mood, at one moment jaunty, then pompous, then unsure. Things become agitated and at the loud climax of the piece a crooked version of the national anthem is heard in the high treble with frantic accompaniment above it, like quarrelling birds. A moment later all is jovial again and Mr Pickwick goes whistling on his way, only to be startled by yet another little mishap. 205


‘Canope’ (Canopic Jar) is a sidestep into the world of the Egyptian antique. It is not known why Debussy wished to link this piece with canopic jars, Egyptian funerary urns with elaborate carved heads, two of which apparently stood on Debussy’s mantelpiece. Perhaps this prelude is another example of painting ‘not the thing itself, but the effect it produces’ as the poet Mallarmé advocated. The atmosphere is solemn and still, fragments of ‘ancient’ melody appearing at various distances and tiny bells tinkling as if to mark the end of some rite. In January 1913 Debussy wrote to his publisher that he had ‘got hung up on “Tomai des Eléphants”. I’ve been soldiering away at it but as a prelude it doesn’t work! I’ve already decided on a replacement and you’ll have a complete set by the end of the week.’ It’s fun to imagine this missing prelude, presumably based on Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ (another English reference!) about a young elephant-handler in India. We might speculate that in its place Debussy substituted ‘Les tierces alternées’ (Alternating thirds) which seems to have wandered in from his Études. It’s a study in subdued virtuosity in which the hands quietly and rapidly alternate in thirds, occupying the same area of the keyboard so that they must constantly cross as they compete for space. Considering Debussy’s fondness for the old French masters of harpsichord music, this may be a subtle joke, for such writing is easy enough to play if you have two harpsichord keyboards (or manuals) at your disposal, but a great deal harder if the two hands must vie for space on a single keyboard. Apart from a brief oasis in the middle, the semiquaver rhythm patters on relentlessly. In bars 75–78 there is a subdued little quote from ‘Ritual action of the ancestors’ in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the quote underlined by Debussy’s tenuto marks over the relevant chords in the bass. It’s hard to know what Stravinsky’s ancestors are doing in this emotionally neutral prelude; perhaps the quote simply shows how hard Debussy was finding it to shake off the ‘ear-worm’ of Stravinsky’s iconic work. ‘Feux d’artifice’ (Fireworks) is a wondrous evocation of a firework display, probably the famous one in the evening of Bastille Day in Paris, when crowds jostle for a spot on one of the bridges over the Seine so that they can see the fireworks reflected in the water. In this final piece Debussy throws all reserve aside and paints with every pianistic colour at his disposal, creating a kind of tone poem almost 206


Lisztian in its mission to dazzle. Everything has a huge range: dynamics, keyboard compass, texture, colour. One of the most difficult technical challenges is the very opening, where groups of white and black notes whirl about in a perpetual motion marked ‘léger, égal et lointain’ (light, even and distant), easier said than done on a modern piano. All kinds of fireworks are portrayed, from the Roman candle to the jumping jack, the rocket, the Catherine wheel and the gentle ‘fountain’ sending silent showers of coloured sparks. A final blaze of pyrotechnic glory comes to a sudden end as the last rocket falls to the ground (fortissimo glissando in both hands), and we are left groping in the dark. In the silence that follows, we hear fragments of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, being played ‘de très loin’ (from very far away) by a band marking the end of the firework display.

58. Sonata for Cello and Piano Debussy was cast into a state of despair and depression by France’s involvement in the First World War. His letters are full of anxieties and forebodings, and he felt his music should reflect his feelings. Previously he had often written music inspired by literary and pictorial ideas, but in 1915 he changed course and decided to undertake a ‘pure’ chamber music project: a series of six sonatas ‘in the ancient, flexible mould with none of the grandiloquence of modern sonatas. There are going to be six of them for different groups of instruments and the last one will combine all those used in the previous five. For many people that won’t be as important as an opera . . . but I thought it was of greater service to music!’ Only the first three sonatas were written, because illness interrupted Debussy’s work, and he died soon after. But he was right in thinking that the sonatas were of great service to music, for the three pieces we have – the cello and piano sonata, the violin and piano sonata, and the sonata for flute, viola and harp – are masterpieces of his late style. The duo sonatas for piano and a string instrument are intricate collaborations, demanding and rewarding for both players. For the pianist, it is particularly galling when they are advertised as if they are solo pieces with accompaniment, but this is not the case: musically and instrumentally the parts are of equal weight. 207


In a letter to his publisher in August 1915, Debussy described his state of mind: ‘I think of the youth of France, wantonly mown down by those Kultur merchants [the Germans], and of their contribution to our heritage, now forever lost to us. The music I’m writing will be a secret homage to them; what’s the use of a dedication?’ He mentions his cello sonata, the first of the six: ‘It’s not for me to judge its excellence but I like its proportions and its almost classical form, in the good sense of the word.’ In October he wrote to Igor Stravinsky: ‘I’ve actually written nothing except “pure” music . . . two sonatas for various instruments, in the old French style.’ It’s interesting that Debussy considered the cello and piano sonata an example of ‘pure’ music and of ‘almost classical form’, for it could be viewed in quite another way, as a highly imaginative and evocative series of cameos. In fact, he treats the cello in a very unusual way as a mercurial, volatile sparring partner of the piano. It would be wrong to generalise about the way the cello is presented in duo sonatas, but it’s probably fair to say that the cello is more often presented as the lyrical, long-breathed member of the duo, the ‘bass singer’ perhaps. What led Debussy to see the cello’s potential for quicksilver repartee? The sonata’s musical language is almost Expressionist in the sense of being slightly overwrought, fevered and highly strung. Debussy was not a fan of Schoenberg at the time, but the cello and piano sonata may seem to share some qualities with Schoenberg’s nightmarish Pierrot Lunaire of 1912. It, too, has a movement called ‘Serenade’. The figure of Pierrot, the sad clown, was extremely popular in France in the late nineteenth century. Debussy himself had earlier written songs based on Verlaine’s poem ‘Pantomime’ and Banville’s poem ‘Pierrot’. When Debussy wrote his Sonata for Cello and Piano, he received a visit from a French cellist, Louis Roosor, who discussed the piece with him and later claimed that Debussy had told him it was a musical depiction of Pierrot’s amorous antics. But when Roosor went to the extent of printing leaflets with this tale and distributing them to audiences when the sonata was on the programme, Debussy was aghast. ‘For a moment he made me feel sorry I’d composed a sonata . . . the episode has worried me considerably; the ramifications are many and I’m not surprised any more that my poor music is so often not understood. . . . Why wasn’t I taught to polish 208


spectacles, like Spinoza? Then I’d never have had to rely on music to provide my daily bread.’ So it seems that either the ‘Pierrot’ theory is wrong, or that Debussy was horrified that it had been given public airing. Nevertheless, the middle movement of the sonata is called ‘Sérénade’, which sounds suspiciously Pierrot-like. And the first movement is called ‘Prologue’, which sounds theatrical. If this music is ‘pure’ and ‘classical’ as Debussy claimed, why did he use such suggestive titles? There is another little puzzle, much chewed over by interested observers. Why did he write the theme of the German chorale ‘Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (A Mighty Stronghold is our God), written by Martin Luther in 1529, on the manuscript of the Serenade? Is this quoted in the sonata, or did he just happen to use the manuscript as a convenient place to scribble down an idea for something else? He did quote that chorale (sardonically) in the second movement of his two-piano work En blanc et noir, written the same year. Some commentators have ingeniously tried to prove that the chorale is quoted in the first two movements of the cello and piano sonata (in the ‘Debussy Sonata’ section of his website, cellist Moray Welsh delves into this mystery), but the evidence is not straightforward; if the chorale is quoted in the sonata, it is tied into knots first. Clearly the situation is complicated, and today’s interpreters must find their own path. Debussy’s musical language in the cello and piano sonata is notable for its compression. Phrases are often short, or made up of fragments which break off irresolutely; there is constant changing of dynamics and tempo; the score is heavily marked with instructions about accents, articulation, speeding up and slowing down. Textures are clear, unsparing. The mood changes rapidly: a nervy volatility runs through all three movements, as though nothing can settle. The players seem to twist and turn, diving in and out of moods, colours and types of expression. In the second movement, the Serenade, the players are asked to be ‘fantastic and light’, ‘ironic’, ‘expressive’, ‘fiery’ and ‘extremely light’ in short order. In the finale there are lightning-fast passages marked ‘volubile’ (volatile, changeable), explosions of energy snuffed out almost immediately by episodes of languorous charm which appear from nowhere. Debussy makes a point of writing short, intense crescendos that blare forth and are extinguished, only to begin again. 209


The Serenade in particular conjures up visual images. As we listen it is easy to imagine Pierrot tiptoeing towards his beloved’s house, tripping over a ladder, sitting on the ground looking dejected, getting up and playing his guitar, capering wildly with his white clothes shining in the dark. But perhaps it is simply that Debussy’s earlier music, such as the Preludes for piano, has taught us to look for such imagery. Without them, we can only grasp that the music seems to be fashioned from tiny disparate gestures, sometimes beautiful, sometimes yearning, sometimes strange and outlandish – a restless language for a troubling time. My own first impression of the cello and piano sonata – before I had heard the Pierrot theory – was that it has a strongly Spanish character. The opening of the first movement seems like flamenco singing, proud and passionate; the pizzicato passages often seem like guitar strumming, and the piano part also imitates the violent rhythmic chords of the flamenco guitarist. In the Serenade there is rapid dance music which combines rhythmic patterns of twos against threes in flamenco manner, and at the beginning of the finale the piano part surely evokes Spanish guitar music with its characteristic fast right-hand fingerwork. Even the slow ‘rubato’ and ‘Lento’ sections in the finale seem as if they could be imitating the sensuous undulations and arm movements of a flamenco bailerina and the whirring of her fan. The ardent ‘vocal’ cadenza at the end, with its exotic scale and its ‘arraché’ (snatched) chords, could hardly be more flamenco. Pierrot, of course, was often portrayed playing the guitar, so is this why Spanish music may have been in Debussy’s mind? And what about the ‘secret homage’ to the youth of France – where in this music is their tribute, or does it simply capture their youthful high spirits? Whatever the ingredients of this fascinating piece, it remains an enigma.

ERIK SATIE (1866–1925) 59. Gymnopédies Erik Satie is most often represented by the drawing of him by his friend Jean Cocteau, in which he appears as an elderly gentleman in pince-nez. His own sketch for a bust of himself (never completed) also portrays him as old and cross-looking. 210


It comes as a surprise therefore to learn that he was actually four years younger than Debussy, who appreciated him more than most. Satie’s Gymnopédies was the only work by another composer which Debussy took the trouble to orchestrate, and that was because he wanted to help the unworldly Erik Satie to gain wider recognition for his music. Satie was a genuine eccentric, and his lifestyle was strange and sad. Nevertheless, he also cultivated the image of a contrarian who did not value the things that society expected him to value, and it is hard to say how much of his behaviour and the quirks of his compositional style were deliberately cultivated. He began in a conventional way by studying piano at the Paris Conservatoire when he was a teenager, but his first piano teacher described him as ‘the laziest student in the Conservatoire’ and his second teacher found him ‘worthless’. At the age of twentyone, in 1887, his life took a turn for the better when he rented a room in the bohemian district of Montmartre. He decided to try and get a job playing the piano in Le Chat Noir, a cabaret club frequented by many artists of the day including Debussy. Satie presented himself to the manager of the club, describing himself as a ‘gymnopedist’. If the manager required any enlightenment about this description, he may not have found it in the explanation that ‘gymnopedia’ was a yearly celebration of athletic and martial arts performed by naked youths in Ancient Sparta. Quite why Satie aligned himself with Spartan youths is unclear, but much of his later music shows a longing for simplicity, clarity, purity, qualities he may have associated with the ancient world. At any rate he got the job, and his time at Le Chat Noir brought him the most important friendships of his life. Paris at the time was convulsed with Wagnerism following the huge success of Wagner’s operas. Some French composers embraced Wagner’s musical language while others worried about how to preserve the distinctiveness of French music, avoiding what they saw as Wagner’s excesses of emotion and ego. Satie’s music can be seen as a response of this type. Not only does he not try to manipulate the listener, he seems to seek to ensure that the listener will remain objective. His phrases are often self-contained, not leading to the places you might expect; his harmonies often seem rather random, as if he is determined not to seduce you with gorgeous harmonic developments. His musical pacing is often very even, 211


almost static, as if he wants you to know he is not going to sweep you up in an emotionally manipulative process of tension and release. His textures and rhythms are often very simple; sometimes bar lines, phrase marks, dynamics and final bar lines disappear entirely, so that his music starts to look like a piece of mediaeval notation. This was probably no accident. Most of all, Satie uses his special brand of humour to keep the listener from getting too involved. In his piano pieces Pièces Froides (Cold Pieces), he gives all kinds of unusual instructions, generally at moments in the music when they are least achievable. ‘Do not eat too much’, he instructs in the middle of a piece. ‘Be visible for a moment’, ‘Slightly cooked’, ‘In the most profound silence’ (while playing). In Descriptions Automatiques (Automatic Descriptions) he tells us, ‘Don’t light up yet – you have time’, and on the next page, ‘Withdraw your hand and put it in your pocket’ (in the middle of a two-handed passage). To guide the pianist’s interpretation of a huge fortissimo ending, he advises, ‘Light as an egg’. In Embryons Desséchés (Dried Embryos) he writes a cheery little figure, requesting that it be played ‘like a nightingale with toothache’. ‘You’re tickling me’, he complains over some repeated semiquavers. In one of my favourite comments he muses, ‘I don’t have any tobacco. Luckily I don’t smoke.’ In Croquis et Agaceries (Sketches and Provocations) he assures us that a certain straightforward passage is ‘Full of subtlety, please believe me’. In Le Fils des Étoiles (The Son of the Stars) he asks for a simple passage to be ‘Courageously easy and complacently solitary’, an instruction he himself could probably have fulfilled perfectly. Over the final dry octave of the piece he writes the enigmatic direction, ‘Always’. Anyone who is drawn to this kind of humour will enjoy reading Satie’s Memoirs of an Amnesiac. His three Gymnopédies contain few instructions and no pedalling. The first one, written in 1888, is the most famous, finding admirers in every generation of pianists. The three pieces are respectively marked ‘Slow and sorrowful’, ‘Slow and sad’ and ‘Slow and serious’. They are extremely similar to one another, all in the form of a slow quiet waltz or sarabande, with a long bass note on the first beat of each bar, and a chord on the second beat. No. 1 sets the pattern. After four bars of introduction, a restrained melody, slightly ‘antique’ in atmosphere, floats in in the treble. This melody moves in a stately fashion, in even crotchets, from time to 212


time pausing to rest on a long note (at which point Satie counter-intuitively asks for the accompanying chords to be suddenly loud). The phrases are of uneven length, sometimes the anticipated four bars but just as often five, six or seven. The melody may just stop in mid-arc, as though an editor’s scissors had sliced through the treble line while the accompaniment continues impassively. The three pieces seem like the same musical idea viewed from hardly differentiated perspectives. The harmonies, though often straightforward, are sometimes slightly unexpected – not so unexpected as to startle or annoy, but ever so slightly ‘left-field’, as if Satie prefers the listener’s attention to roll along with the merest hint of grit in the ball-bearings. The atmosphere is perhaps the most notable thing about the Gymnopédies; it is graceful, melancholy and austere, deliberately providing nothing with which a person could show off, and refraining from whipping up anyone’s emotions. If the music is connected with Ancient Greece at all, it is with detachment, as if it depicts someone slowly turning in their hands an ancient ceramic vase with beautiful youths depicted on its surface. It is not surprising that Satie’s music is now regarded as a foundation of the ‘ambient music’ which became popular in the late twentieth century with its aesthetic of staying in the background, erasing obvious points of interest, fostering a sense of calm and contemplation.

FERRUCCIO BUSONI (1866–1924) 60. Fantasia after Johann Sebastian Bach, BV253 I was introduced to the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni by the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson, whose evening classes in music appreciation I attended as a teenager. Stevenson was an ardent admirer of Busoni, whose wide-ranging talents as composer, virtuoso pianist, teacher and theorist he regarded as the model of what a serious, well-rounded and deeply cultured musician should be. As a young pianist I was mightily impressed to hear that when Busoni was dissatisfied with the way he had played this or that on a concert tour, he would go back to the hall late at night in order to practise ‘until he got it right’. In later years I wondered whether I had misremembered this, but found that in 1898 Busoni had written to 213


a friend that one should ‘never leave a passage which has been unsuccessful, without repeating it; if you cannot do it in the presence of others, then do it subsequently.’ It’s doubtful whether this high-minded advice has been followed by many pianists, not at least to the extent of going back to the hall to practise after the audience has gone. Busoni was a child prodigy both as pianist and composer. He was born in Empoli, Italy, started performing in public at the age of seven, and by nine was studying in Vienna. When he was eleven he heard Liszt play, and was introduced to the great man. In some respects Busoni was a natural heir to Liszt, sharing his virtuoso technique, his talent for composition, and his interest in transcribing other composers’ works for piano or using them as the raw material for elaborate fantasies. Those who heard both Liszt and the mature Busoni play the piano remarked on the similarity of their styles. In 1899 William Dayas, an American who was one of Liszt’s last piano students, heard Busoni play one of Liszt’s transcriptions and said, ‘What a pity the Old Man [Liszt] did not hear that! He would have given you his sword and died in peace.’ The musical language of Busoni’s generation was, however, less stable than Liszt’s. During Busoni’s life Romantic music gave way to austere experiments in atonality, and his musical style seems to waver between the two in a way which is not always comfortable to listen to. Many people find Busoni’s piano music more palatable when he links his musical language to that of, for example, J.S. Bach, whose organ works he had been transcribing and incorporating into his piano music since his twenties. Bach’s steadiness of temperament seems to have had a good effect on Busoni, restraining his tendency to over-write or overheat. Over a period of thirty years Busoni paraphrased so many works of Bach and had published so many pieces with their linked names on the title page that once, when he was on tour in the United States with his wife Gerda, she was innocently asked whether she was Mrs Bach-Busoni. Shortly after Busoni’s father died in 1909, Busoni wrote a Fantasia after Johann Sebastian Bach in his father’s memory. He called it a ‘Nachdichtung’, a German literary term for a poetical work that tries to recreate the effect of another poetical work through mood, emotion and atmosphere rather than through literal translation. 214


Choosing three chorale settings from organ works by J.S. Bach, Busoni composed a fifteen-minute piece which runs the gamut from dark and solemn to jubilant and virtuosic and back again. Starting with an improvisatory section in F minor, he moves to a Lisztian sound-world where floating chromatic harmonies convey a strong sense of regret and melancholy. Amid the floating harmonies, we hear in the treble an ‘inset’ motif of three repeated notes or chords which in earlier works Busoni had used to signify Death. A stately Bach chorale is introduced, and alongside it the ‘death’ motif continues to ring out in the treble. After elaborating upon this chorale in the manner of a peaceful Bach Invention, Busoni brings in the tune we know as the Christmas carol In dulci jubilo, decorating it in an open and festive mood. However, at its final cadence there is a change, and with chilling suddenness we are returned to a mood of solemnity. Writing now in the manner of Bach’s organ works, with many inner voices, Busoni builds to a huge climax. As it fades, we hear once more the earlier sad chorale theme in F minor, and the fluid, dreamy chromatic Lisztian swirling figurations with their parallel ‘death’ motifs. Over the final lines, Busoni writes the word ‘riconciliato’, reconciled, and with some relief we hear the peaceful F major arpeggios which seem to indicate acceptance. But no: the very last bar turns back towards the darkness of F minor where, without the root of the chord being stated, we hear the ‘death’ motif. ‘It is a major concert work – one of my best,’ Busoni wrote, and many listeners would agree. After he played its premiere in London in 1910 he told his mother, ‘It is from the heart, and all who heard it were moved to tears.’

ENRIQUE GRANADOS (1867–1916) 61. ‘Quejas, o La Maja y el Ruiseñor’ The Spanish composer Enrique Granados was inspired by the paintings of his compatriot Goya to compose a suite of piano pieces, Goyescas, which Granados premiered himself in 1911. ‘I fell in love with Goya’s psychology, with his palette,’ Granados wrote to a friend. ‘With him and with the Duchess of Alba; with his gallant lady [‘Maja’], his models, his squabbles, love affairs and sweet nothings. The pinkish-white of those cheeks standing out amidst lace and black 215


brocaded velvet; those bodies with their undulating waistlines and hands of mother-of-pearl and jasmine blossom resting against jet-black hair have got me all flustered . . .’ ‘Maja’ is variously translated as ‘maid’, ‘lover’, ‘girl’, ‘lady’, ‘pretty one’, even ‘prostitute’. Generally from the lower classes, majas and majos (the masculine version) dressed in stylish and elaborate Spanish costume, disdained the currently fashionable French outfits, and were known for their bold and cheeky behaviour. Goya was fascinated by them and included them in some of his most famous paintings, for example La maja vestida and La maja desnuda. A quarter of a century earlier, Mussorgsky had also been inspired by a painter when he based his Pictures at an Exhibition on paintings and designs by Victor Hartmann. Granados takes a looser approach to Goya’s work, allowing it to suggest atmosphere without dictating details. Indeed, the most famous piece of Goyescas and the one which best stands alone, ‘Quejas o la Maja y el Ruiseñor’ (Complaints, or the Maja and the Nightingale) appears not to have been based on a Goya painting at all, but was inspired by a trip to Valencia when Granados heard a young girl singing a folk song. ‘Una tarde que me hallaba/En mi jardín divertida/Oi una voz dolorida/Que un pajarillo cantaba/Y a mi como me gustaba/Del pajarillo la voz’ (‘One afternoon when I was in my nice little garden, I heard a doleful voice of a little bird singing, and how I liked its voice’). The young Valencian singer becomes a ‘maja’ in Granados’s piano piece as he enlarges upon her song. The original folk song has irregular phrase lengths – three bars per phrase – but Granados tidies this up, or at any rate shapes them into more predictable groups of two or four bars, as if combing its hair for polite society. Granados was a fine pianist who trained in Paris. His piano writing is of the lush late-Romantic style, with rich harmonies, languorous phrases and many things going on in inner voices, making an intricate texture. His own style of playing, of which we can get some idea from the recordings he made for player piano in 1912, show that he played with improvisatory freedom, rolling the chords and ‘staggering’ the duets between the two hands in a very Romantic manner. His sensuous description of Goya’s artworks makes it clear that he loved physical surfaces and materials, and in Goyescas he recreates the rich colours and 216


fabrics by way of dense musical ‘textures’ and swooning velvety phrases glittering with little decorations. Essentially, ‘La Maja y el Ruiseñor’ is a song plus three variations in which the theme is progressively ornamented and enriched. The first variation (with flowing semiquavers in the bass) is in F sharp minor, the second in B minor, the third in F sharp minor again with the theme now beginning in the bass. Four slow bars with two drooping phrases (also used in all the other pieces of Goyescas) seem to sigh and say ‘Alas!’ After a silent pause, the melody makes a quiet final appearance in simpler rhythms and milder harmonies. We might imagine this is the end, but no: the last word is given to the nightingale who trills cheerfully from somewhere high above us, oblivious to the girl’s suffering. This is no sentimental nightingale – its cool virtuosity is in striking contrast to the foregoing lament, and seems to look forward to Messiaen’s use of birdsong. Granados went on to turn Goyescas into an opera, which contains a sung version of this lovely piece. ‘La Maja y el Ruiseñor’ was given a new lease of life in 1940 when it inspired Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez’s hugely popular ‘Bésame mucho’.

AMY BEACH (1867–1944) 62. Sketches, op. 15 Amy Beach is now acknowledged as the first great female American composer. In recent years American historians and musicians have worked hard to make her music better known. The need for remedial work on her behalf is shown by my own, probably representative experience: in years of piano lessons, concert-going and postgraduate piano seminars I never once heard a piece by Amy Beach, nor did a teacher ever suggest I learn one. This is not an indication of any lack of quality in her music, but rather a sign of the difficulties which women composers have encountered over the centuries, and of the unjust obscurity assigned to them by a (still) male-dominated profession. In reality, Beach’s music stands tall in the company of her contemporaries. 217


Amy Beach (born Amy Cheney) was a prodigiously gifted child whose musical talent was a source of alarm as well as pride to her family. When she was a tiny child her mother, believing that children should learn self-control, used to forbid her to play the piano or listen to music if she had supposedly been naughty. But Amy’s love of music was unstoppable, and when it became clear that that even when banned from playing the piano she could ‘make’ compositions in her head and save them up to be played at the next permitted opportunity, her parents agreed she could have composition lessons, and piano tuition from Carl Baermann, himself a pupil of Liszt. At sixteen, Amy made an acclaimed debut in Boston playing Moscheles’s Piano Concerto no. 3. Agents proposed concert tours, but her parents said no. Only two years later, at the age of eighteen, Amy married a Boston surgeon, Dr H.H.A. Beach. Even though Dr Beach was a keen music-lover, he made Amy agree that after marriage she would focus on being the wife of a respected doctor, confining herself to two performing opportunities a year and giving any profits to charity, as making money for herself would be demeaning. For the same reason, she was not to teach the piano. She could compose if she did so privately, but she was not to have a tutor. Her husband put it to her that composition, rather than playing the piano, was her true calling, but ‘I did not believe him, for I thought I was a pianist first and foremost’, Amy later wrote. Amy focused on composition as agreed, and her large-scale works, such as a Mass in E flat (1892) and a Gaelic Symphony (1896), were enthusiastically received. Her name was given on the title pages as ‘Mrs H.H.A. Beach’. Her fellow Boston composer George Whitefield Chadwick wrote to congratulate her on ‘being counted one of the boys’. In 1900 Amy was the piano soloist in the Boston premiere of her own piano concerto, a work now believed to depict her struggle to be allowed to be a musician. She wrote songs, chamber music, and in 1904 her longest solo piano work, Variations on Balkan Themes, an innovative construction weaving four different folk songs into a work inspired by political revolts in Eastern Europe. After her husband died in 1910, she started calling herself ‘Amy Beach’ rather than just ‘Mrs H.H.A. Beach’. Beach’s piano music is clearly the work of a highly accomplished pianist with a warm heart and a wide knowledge of European styles. Much of it is in the style of 218


Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Moscheles and the American piano virtuoso Louis Gottschalk, whose music she liked as a child. Harmonically her music often has echoes of Grieg and of Dvořák, especially his ‘American’ phase. Critics have sometimes said that she did not have a truly distinctive voice as a composer, but this just demonstrates the extra burden of proof imposed on female musicians, for in all honesty the same criticism could be levelled at a great many male composers. My own favourite among her compositions is her 1892 four-movement set of Sketches, op. 15: colourful, rich in texture and beautifully written for the piano. Each piece is headed by a line from a French poem. ‘In Autumn’ has echoes of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, dancing gently through the leaves to a left-hand accompaniment that seems almost like a premonition of ragtime. ‘Phantoms’ is a fast, playful waltz with intricate Lisztian harmonies. ‘Dreaming’, one of her finest piano works, is almost like a Fauré nocturne with its long-breathed melodies over subtly chromatic rippling accompaniment. Its G flat major setting recalls the key that Schubert chose for the most beloved of his Impromptus and shares that work’s sense of reverie controlled by a master architect. Beach’s fourth Sketch, ‘Fireflies’, was clearly inspired by the fluttering double thirds of Liszt’s notoriously difficult Feux Follets. Amy played her own more graceful, lilting ‘Fireflies’ in concert, and the piece was a favourite encore of the celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann.

ALEXANDER SCRIABIN (1872–1915) 63. Piano Sonata no. 5, op. 53 The music of Scriabin, in and out of fashion since his day, has always been controversial, attracting wild enthusiasm as well as sincere dislike. It is impossible to take his compositions simply on musical terms, because they were based on and driven by his philosophical beliefs and his growing conviction that he was a god. He was keenly interested in the writings of the theosophist Madame Blavatsky and the philosopher Nietzsche, especially his ideas about ‘the superior man’. Applying these ideas to music, Scriabin developed theories about the role of the composer and the effects to be obtained by classifying keys and chords in terms of colour, 219


light, perfume and so on, and then mixing them like drugs to affect the audience. One of his most famous inventions is the ‘mystic chord’, an exotic tower of six notes composed of various fourths and thirds, not unlike the Tristan chord made famous by Wagner. Scriabin believed that hearing his mystic chord could give an instant apprehension of things normally beyond the power of the intellect. (He himself called it ‘the chord of the pleroma’, pleroma being a word used in theology to mean ‘the fullness of divine beings’.) The six notes of the chord could be piled vertically one upon the other, or spaced out horizontally and rearranged in a number of ways to form melodic lines, or at least groups of related pitches. In his earlier years, Scriabin wrote piano music that was clearly inspired by Chopin – graceful and lyrical, though with a darker sense of introversion than Chopin’s. He used Chopin’s titles too – Études, Nocturnes, Impromptus, Fantasies and Mazurkas. Scriabin’s early pieces have a clear sense of being in a certain key, which allows one to intuit whether one is at home, moving away, in a related key or in a distant key, or moving back to the home key. All this changed as his philosophical readings directed him to a kind of music which enveloped the listener in a mystical trance or led them to a realm where ordinary rules did not apply. His ten piano sonatas act as milestones in this development. The earlier ones have a firmer sense of a home key, but the later ones inhabit a strange floating world. As the sense of ‘where we are’ is gradually erased, we lose the sense of tension, release, distance, return and so on which help us to map our way through, say, the sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, or indeed of Chopin. In a world where everything is perfumed and sensuous, the luxurious chords to which Scriabin ascribed different colours and meanings may, despite their exoticism, come to seem oddly monotonous. Or, beauty being in the eye of the beholder, they may seem intoxicating, seductive and visionary. Scriabin’s fifth sonata (1907) is the first which is conceived in a single movement, his preferred method from this sonata onwards. It was written in just six days, and he considered it his best work to date. He prefaced it with lines from his own symphonic Poem of Ecstasy – ‘I call you to life, mysterious forces! Drowned in the obscure depths of the creative spirit, timid shadows of life, to you I bring audacity!’ The sonata is, however, subdivided along traditional lines. It bursts in 220


with a few seething, impetuous bars which give way to a meditative section in which the main theme (yet to come) seems to emerge as from a dream. Then we hear the principal theme itself – very fast, quiet and energetic – followed by a contrasting theme, a development in which ideas are mixed together, a reprise and a coda. Officially the piece is in the key of F sharp major, but the frantic introduction laughs maniacally at that constraint. Many expression marks underline the sensuous nature of the music: ‘caressingly’, ‘voluptuously’, ‘very perfumed’, ‘ecstatically’. Contrast is provided by languid and melancholy sections juxtaposed with madly difficult, almost jazzy episodes where the two hands play in different rhythms and we seem to be hovering in the air somewhere between the territories of Stravinsky and Ravel, perhaps even Duke Ellington. We move on to a fanfare-like section which heralds a tremendous buildup of energy and the clashing of motifs. The reprise whips us through this sequence again, culminating in a terrifying coda where the pianist’s hands claw their way up an invisible wall and disappear into the ether. At this point, the key signature of six sharps feels like the vocabulary of another, simpler world. After this sonata, Scriabin’s beliefs became more extreme. From thinking of himself as a composer he upgraded himself to a creator, even a divine being (though it is not entirely clear whether a benevolent one). His piano music becomes more and more nervy, intense and overheated, inhabiting an imaginative zone which would have been familiar to Freud. Scriabin started working towards a transcendental event in which humanity would be summoned to the foothills of the Himalayas to participate in a merging of all the arts with all the senses, the spiritual ecstasy to be helped along by dance, light, incense, poetry (his own) and with a soundtrack provided by himself as the guiding deity at the piano. Sadly, he died when he was still at the stage of planning the ‘Prefatory Action’. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who played it magnificently, said that Scriabin’s fifth sonata was the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertoire. In the 1930s, Shostakovich described Scriabin as ‘our bitter musical enemy’, adding that his music breathed ‘unhealthy eroticism . . . mysticism, passivity and a flight from the reality of life’. Scriabin’s fans continue to believe that he found a particular way of stimulating the listener’s nervous system, and while listening to 221


his music, some have reported ‘seeing’ the colours and flashes of light that Scriabin hoped his music would produce.

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873–1943) 64. Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18 Rachmaninoff ’s second piano concerto was the fruit of a successful period of treatment in 1900 for writer’s block with the Moscow therapist Nikolai Dahl. Rachmaninoff had been feeling low since the failure of his first symphony, premiered by a conductor who was allegedly drunk and ‘wrecked it’. He had written almost nothing for three years until his aunt and his cousins (one of whom he later married) recommended him to go and see Dr Dahl, who lived down the street from them and was a music-lover. Dahl had studied hypnotherapy with Dr Charcot in Paris and his method seems to have centred on seating the patient in a comfortable armchair, using gentle hypnosis to relax him and then, while he was in this state, suggesting to him that he would soon be working freely and creatively with no feeling of obstruction. Within a few months Rachmaninoff ’s appetite for work was restored. The second piano concerto was written soon after, and was dedicated to Dr Dahl. It’s a touching footnote that in later life Dr Dahl emigrated to Beirut and played his viola in the amateur orchestra of the American University there. On one occasion, Rachmaninoff ’s second piano concerto was performed and the audience was told that its dedicatee was playing in the viola section, whereupon Dr Dahl rose from amid the orchestra to take a bow – a moment one would love to have witnessed. Rachmaninoff was one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, and fortunately we have recordings to demonstrate his irresistible fluency and sense of direction. His playing of the classics was insightful, but naturally his playing of his own music was particularly treasured. Rachmaninoff had enormous hands, capable of stretching an octave and a fifth, or C to G twelve notes away on the white keys. Consequently he could reach easily for faraway notes in his own elaborate piano figurations. At the very beginning of the second piano concerto we 222


are confronted with this task, because it begins with the pianist alone, making a stealthy approach to C minor via a series of massive chords which begin quietly and gradually get louder, reaching fortissimo as the orchestra comes in with the famous opening melody. Shortly before the Moscow premiere in 1901, Rachmaninoff worried that he had made a big mistake in allotting the first big tune to the orchestra instead of the soloist, but somehow the mellow sonority of the string section as it rolls along the glorious melodic line accompanied by swirling piano arpeggios feels very pleasing, as if the pianist is courteously giving the orchestra a bit of limelight, knowing that there will soon be stellar opportunities for the piano to shine. The big tune was probably inspired by the composer’s lifelong love of Russian Orthodox chant. It has that special quality of being easily remembered, as many concertgoers will have found as they go home humming this or one of the other marvellous themes Rachmaninoff presents in the concerto. The second theme too, this time given to the piano, has a gorgeous lyrical arch-shape, its little two-note ‘sighing’ motifs on the descent echoing the equivalent motifs in the first theme. A short brass chorale propels us into the sweeping development. When the reprise comes, the orchestra still has the first theme but it is now invigorated by a splendid ‘maestoso’ (majestic) march theme played alongside by the piano. After the C minor of the first movement, the slow movement is in the surprising key of E major, probably in homage to Beethoven who does the same thing in his Piano Concerto no. 3. But unlike Beethoven, Rachmaninoff works around to E major from an orchestral opening in C minor rather as a pianist might have done in a solo recital according to the still-prevalent custom of ‘preluding’, or improvising links between pieces. When the soloist enters, the music is notated in triplets but because of the patterning it sounds as if the piano is playing in fournote groups. Just as we have got used to that pattern, a solo flute enters with a slow melody which causes most listeners a moment or two of utter disorientation before they adjust and realise that the flute is simply playing on the beat and the piano has been playing triplets all along. As things heat up, there are three climaxes one after another, the third one inspiring the pianist to burst into arpeggios which spill over and accelerate into energetic embellishment and a cadenza during 223


which the soloist seems to muse on the concerto’s opening passage as it works around to the reprise. Now it is muted violins which sing the main theme, as the piano grandly sweeps up and down in ecstatic agreement. At the start of the finale, Rachmaninoff repeats the device he used in the slow movement, beginning in the key of the previous movement and working subtly round to the key of the new one, in this case C minor. The mood is almost Chopinesque, a light, quiet and playful march like something out of a ballet scene. The piano bursts in on this with an impetuous cadenza and a sparkling follow-up which makes it clear who is now the focus of attention. Motifs derived from the first movement’s main theme – especially the two-note sighing figure – flash by amid the arpeggios and soon we arrive at a slower episode with a gorgeous ‘Hollywood’-type theme, with a touch of Eastern influence in its chromaticism, announced by the orchestra and repeated more ardently by the piano. A mysteriously slow passage over a sustained bass note, with delicate touches of the cymbals, takes us into the development, where the soloist must grapple with difficult octave passages and a fugato episode before the reprise, which is dominated by glorification of the lyrical second theme. After a final burst of piano cadenza, the strings sail in with an unforgettable final recall of this lyrical theme, which inflames the soloist with a fiery dash to the end. It has become part of the tradition of performing this concerto that Rachmaninoff ’s dynamics and tempo markings are exaggerated, often with pianists playing louder than he indicates, or faster or slower (examples might be the ‘maestoso’ march section in the first movement, often taken too fast, or the start of the slow movement, often taken too slowly). The composer himself does not play his own concerto like that – indeed his playing is a model of nuance and flexibility, with an elegant virtuosity which reminds us of how deeply he was rooted in the world of nineteenth-century Russia, rather than the showier world of twentieth-century America which made his fortune.

65. Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op. 30 In 1909 Rachmaninoff, living at the time in Dresden, was invited to make his debut as a pianist in the United States. A long tour of three months had been 224


proposed. He was reluctant to go so far away, but as he confided to a friend, ‘I’d like to buy an automobile. I can’t tell you how much I want one! . . . I don’t want to go. But then, perhaps, after America I’ll be able to buy myself that automobile.’ His second piano concerto of 1901 was due to be performed on that American tour, but he thought it would be a good moment to produce a new concerto, and he hurried to write it. His third concerto turned out to be even more technically difficult than the previous one, and in order to practise it on the long sea voyage from Europe to America he took a dummy keyboard with him so that he could at least practise the fingering. In New York he had the opportunity to play his new concerto with the composer Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic. Rachmaninoff recalled how grateful he was to Mahler: ‘He touched my composer’s heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through a long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important – an attitude which is unfortunately rare among conductors.’ The American audience liked it, but they didn’t love it the way they loved ‘Rach Two’, as the second piano concerto became known. The third concerto was felt to be a bit too long (forty-three minutes), a little obscure, its tunes not quite so adorable. Also, there was its technical difficulty: clearly its composer could play it brilliantly, but who else would be able to rise to the challenge of such a demanding work? Its dedicatee, the pianist Josef Hofmann, never performed it, saying it ‘wasn’t for him’. It remained in the shadow of its predecessor until it was taken up in the 1930s by the young Russian virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, whose stunning performances endeared it to the public. After Rachmaninoff was persuaded to make certain cuts to the piece, it became easier to programme. It was his own favourite among his piano concertos. Today it is one of the most revered of Romantic concertos, and although its performance history is maledominated, it is now more and more taken up by female pianists. At the mention of the third concerto, people often start humming its opening tune, the haunting melody the pianist plays in octaves after two preparatory bars of murmuring from the orchestra. As with the big tune in the second concerto, 225


the inspiration was probably Russian Orthodox Chant, although it could just as plausibly be Russian folk song. Another inspiration may have been Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, which begins in a similar way. Almost immediately after this limpid opening, complication breaks out. The style of piano writing feels slightly different from that in the second concerto: here it seems almost like Bach-like; clear and dry, every note intended to be heard. Perhaps Rachmaninoff ’s choice of such a style could have something to do with three years of living in Dresden, a city that hosted so many Baroque composers? At any rate, it is a gift to the pianist with brilliant clarity of touch, but terrifying for the player who likes to cloak their shortcomings in a haze of pedal. The second theme begins in an unusual way: hesitant and spiky at first, but developed by the piano into a lyrical episode. Halfway through the movement comes a huge cadenza which also functions as the beginning of the reprise (possibly also inspired by Mendelssohn’s violin concerto). Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of the cadenza, one long and one short, but he generally performed the shorter one. The cadenza chews over the two main themes for several minutes in a grand manner, prolonging its solitary musings even after the orchestra has attempted to join in. The second movement, Intermezzo, has a three-part form, its outer sections almost like a sad scene from one of Tchaikovsky’s operas, or at any rate evocative of deep melancholy and nostalgia. A lengthy orchestral introduction is interrupted by the passionate soloist, almost like someone entering the stage in a storm of weeping before settling down to tell the story, which it does with increasing fervour. Suddenly the mood changes, and we are in the midst of a fascinating scherzo, perhaps a little homage to Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto where there is a similar dance-like episode in the slow movement. Rachmaninoff ’s piano writing is at its most sparkling, with rapid repeated notes worked into the swirling patterns of a slightly demonic waltz (here again there is no point in hoping for the pedal to come to your rescue: clarity is essential). The dance vanishes as quickly as it came, leaving the melancholy atmosphere to return. Then with another sudden cadenza, the soloist sweeps us into the finale. Rapid repeated-note figures come to the fore immediately in the finale, whose agitated theme has a touch of the sleigh bells from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Troika’ 226


(‘November’ from The Seasons), one of Rachmaninoff ’s favourite recital encores. The atmosphere of simmering excitement grips immediately and scarcely lets up; even the rather emphatic second theme, with its dogged syncopations, is charged with energy. Characteristic of this movement is a brilliantly patterned surface with slow-moving harmonies underneath, as in the second theme with its sustained bass notes. In a ‘scherzando’ (playful) section, the orchestra quietly holds and reiterates harmonies as the pianist flies about in the air rather like the fairies who are ‘exquisite dancers’ in one of Debussy’s preludes. As the mood settles, there is a touching moment where the opening theme of the concerto, the haunting Russian melody, is remembered by the violas, and the piano then recalls the second theme of the first movement too. For the rest of the movement the orchestra seems less a dynamic partner in the enterprise than a sort of corps de ballet, surging round supportively while the soloist drives the audience to frenzy with dazzling leaps and turns. In the reprise, all the main themes flash before us and broaden into a mighty climax with the pianist driven to extremes of declamatory ardour. The year after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff and his wife Natalia emigrated to the United States. For some years Rachmaninoff did not compose any piano music. He was busy touring and giving concerts, but it seems that his new life (or more likely the loss of his old life) had at least temporarily cut off the flow of his musical inspiration. In the United States, however, he was able to afford not only the latest model of automobile, but also a chauffeur.

MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937) 66. Miroirs The five piano pieces which make up Miroirs (Mirrors) were written in 1904–5. Mirrors were important symbols in late nineteenth-century French art and literature. For the symbolist poets, mirrors suggested a world of reflection in every sense. Mirrors offered the illusion of exactitude at one remove; symbolist writers aimed, in the words of Mallarmé, ‘to paint not the thing itself, but the effect it produces’. Many French painters of the time – Manet, Degas, Bonnard, Vuillard, 227


Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec – give mirrors a prominent place in their paintings. In fashionable houses, large gilt mirrors were installed above the mantelpiece in the main rooms. Looking at contemporary paintings one has the impression that people were as fond of looking into mirrors as they were of looking out of windows. They were fascinated by their own images, of course, but also by the strange world inside the mirror, where flowers looked lovely but had no smell, fruit had no taste, birds opened their beaks but were silent, and beautiful beings moved in a sterile world where no one could touch them. All this appealed to Ravel, known to his friends as ‘a dandy’, impeccably dressed with the right shoes for every occasion, his hands neatly manicured. He had many friends, but in his mature years he chose to live alone in a beautifully decorated house filled with oriental art and mechanical toys. His devotion to music was concealed behind apparently cynical lines such as ‘. . . le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile’ (. . . the delicious and always-new pleasure of a useless occupation), a quote from the symbolist poet Henri de Régnier which Ravel put at the head of his Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, a collection of gorgeous waltzes with a hint of decay. He took great pride in being considered a master craftsman, slightly aloof from his own creations as though they were clockwork toys he could set going and then watch from a safe distance, enjoying their dazzling effect. There is, of course, more to Ravel than that: an exquisite sensibility and even a painful sensitivity lives within his music. In around 1900 Ravel joined an all-male group of artists, poets and musicians who met every week to socialise and discuss their work. The group was known humorously as ‘Les Apaches’ after they barged into a newspaper seller on the street one day and were reproached with the remark, ‘Attention les Apaches!’ (‘Apaches’ was current Parisian slang for ‘hooligans’). Each piece of Miroirs was dedicated to a different member of the Apaches. The dedicatees were a poet, a painter, a critic and a composer; with typical contrariness Ravel dedicated the technically simplest piece (‘Oiseaux Tristes’) to Ricardo Viñes, the only one of them who was a renowned concert pianist. The five pieces show an absolute mastery of writing for the piano, and this despite the fact that Ravel was not a virtuoso pianist himself. Although the writing 228


demands an intense and rapid activity of the fingers, the movement required is often ‘within the hand’, meaning that the notes lie within the natural span of the hand and don’t require the pianist to encompass wide stretches. With these incredibly rapid notes, almost faster than the ear can take in individually, Ravel creates a sense of shading such as an artist would use to give texture to a drawing. In ‘Noctuelles’ (Night Moths), for example, Ravel creates a mesmerising effect of fluttering. The two hands play rhythmic patterns of four-against-three; melodically, Ravel constantly uses ‘grace notes’, little decorative notes adjacent to a main melody note or chord, to give the impression of ceaseless movement within a very small compass. The night moths must have benefited from the light, dry tone of Ravel’s favourite Érard piano. He creates unpredictable patterns with irregular phrase lengths and constantly changing time signatures which enhance the impression of a quiet but chaotic tumbling. In the middle section, with its slightly menacing harmonies, we encounter the slow and sombre world to which he returns several times in the other pieces. In its own Parisian way, this seems to anticipate Bartók’s strange, scary ‘night music’. ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ (Sad Birds) inhabits this same sombre world. Ravel said that it portrayed ‘birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest, during the hottest hours of summertime’. An exotic bird calls in the distance (again, this would have been effective on Ravel’s dry-toned piano) and keeps up its plaintive calling as darker, slower creatures move about in the forest. In the middle there is some kind of frantic quarrel in the treetops, but it subsides quickly and the slow heat of the day takes over again. Towards the end there is a most beautifully written cadenza, reminiscent of the way the fire rises up out of the grate in Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Ricardo Viñes, the pianist to whom the piece was dedicated, described it as ‘a Japanese print’. ‘Une Barque sur l’Océan’ (A Boat on the Ocean) is the only piece without a metronome mark; Ravel simply says ‘d’un rhythme souple’ (with supple rhythm). (He orchestrated it in 1906 and at that point suggested a metronome mark, but it is not necessarily the case that the tempo which suits an orchestra is exactly the tempo that would suit a solo pianist.) It is a leisurely depiction of a boat sailing on and on through various kinds of seas – calm, choppy, with the wind rising up, 229


water splashing against the boat, a few stormy moments, and sailing off serenely at the end. These effects are not specified by Ravel, but they come easily to mind. It is admirable how he catches the way the waves lap against each other in an asymmetrical pattern, little surges moving counter to the larger waves. Fragments of melody drift through the spray, but sometimes there is nothing going on but rippling arpeggios. This is a challenging piece, requiring great dexterity and stamina, particularly as a lot of it is marked to be played pianissimo. ‘Alborada del Gracioso’ (Morning Song of the Clown) is the mysterious title of the most technically difficult piece, an evocation of Spain and Spanish guitar music. The ‘gracioso’ was a stock character in sixteenth-century Spanish comedy, a buffoon or court jester who was allowed to get away with all kinds of shocking behaviour because he was just ‘a fool’. Here Ravel conjures up the dry sonority of strummed guitars and clicking castanets with implacably fast dance rhythms and ‘snatched’ arpeggiated chords. Soon we come to the famous repeated-note section, marked ‘suddenly quiet’ (which makes it harder). This is the passage which deters many pianists from practising the piece to concert standard. It’s meant to sound like the buzzing of distant guitars, perhaps, but the challenge of repeating notes so rapidly is daunting, especially on the modern piano with its heavier action. A languorous episode like the passionate lament of a flamenco singer provides a brief reprieve from the technical difficulties, but worse is to come: glissandos in fourths and in thirds, unhelpfully marked ‘quiet’, requiring the pianist to drag their right hand up and down the keyboard with two fingers fixed like the points of mathematical compasses defining the right interval. Ravel’s iron grip on this piece must be matched by the pianist’s, but few will manage it accurately at the speed he indicates and it is not surprising that the piece is more often heard in its orchestral arrangement. It ends with a snap of the heels, a crisp flourish marked ‘without slowing down’. ‘La Vallée des Cloches’ (The Valley of Bells) is a ravishing evocation of bells resounding at various distances and intervals in a valley. There is a hint of the Javanese gamelan here, an exotic sound Ravel and Debussy both admired when they heard it at the Paris Exhibition in 1889; in a gamelan orchestra, metallophones, xylophones, flute and gongs (amongst others) have their distinct roles in 230


the sonority, smaller instruments playing higher and faster notes, larger instruments playing deeper notes more slowly. In Ravel’s ‘Vallée’ the bells ring out without reference to one another, the deepest bells clashing with the higher ones, the peals creating a subtle interplay. A melody arises in the middle, like a human being suddenly wandering into the scene to witness what is going on, but it fades away again, and we are left with only the bells for company.

67. Trio for Piano,Violin and Cello in A minor Written in 1914 on the eve of the First World War, Ravel’s piano trio was the subject of one of his most intriguing remarks. In answer to his composition pupil Maurice Delage’s enquiry as to how it was getting on, Ravel replied, ‘My trio is finished. All I need are the themes.’ Many composers would probably regard the themes as being the starting point, but Ravel’s imagination was evidently more fired by the structure of the piece, the shape he wanted to build. If he hadn’t yet thought of the themes, then presumably he hadn’t written down much either: the work had all been done in his head. This rare ability was one he shared with Mozart. In the summer of 1914 Ravel had retreated from the exhausting social whirl of Paris to the Basque coast village of St Jean-de-Luz, near to where he was born in Ciboure. He intended to immerse himself in a quiet period of composition, but on 2 August the news that France had entered the war put paid to that. Ravel, who was thirty-nine and might have hoped to be spared the obligation of signing up, was determined to play his part (he hoped to be accepted as a pilot, but was taken on as a truck driver and hospital orderly). He hurried to complete the Trio, telling Delage a few days after the declaration of war that he ‘was working on the Trio with the sureness and lucidity of a madman’. His manuscript, on which he calls the work ‘Trio/pour piano violon & violoncelle’ (an order of instruments later changed by his publisher), notes that he finished writing it in August. In September he told various friends that he was carefully correcting the proofs ‘in case I am absent’, a phrase whose ominous implication he later clarified by saying ‘I have treated the Trio as a posthumous work’. Fortunately it was not, but these remarks betray his sense of doom. 231


Ravel once said he found it useful to copy a work he admired, and in this case it seems to have been Saint-Saëns’s first piano trio, though as Ravel observed, one can discover a lot about oneself through one’s ‘unwitting infidelity’ to the model. Another inspiration was his own early single-movement Sonata for Violin and Piano (Sonate posthume, 1897) whose two main themes, also in A minor, are quite similar to those of the Trio’s first movement. He far surpassed both of these inspirations with a work which in terms of grandeur and complexity is the twentiethcentury equivalent of Schubert’s E flat piano trio. All three parts are of fearsome technical difficulty, putting the whole trio under a certain duress which somehow captures and expresses the music’s internal anxiety. The first movement, ‘Modéré’ (moderate), is a finely balanced mixture of tranquil, almost static episodes with sudden bursts of energy and agitation, a mirror perhaps of life in St Jean-de-Luz that summer. Ravel said that the opening theme had ‘a Basque colour’ and indeed its gently rocking rhythms, 3+3+2 in a bar of eight quavers, amplify characteristic Basque folk rhythms such as zortzico, its five-beat lilt made up of 1+2+2 beats. The cello attempts to move things on with a flowing lyrical melody in the same metre, but suddenly the piano flares up with a virtuoso passage which sets all three instruments buzzing with energy. Throughout the movement, stable episodes alternate with unstable ones, and sleepy ones with wide-awake ones, in a carefully controlled mosaic. The writing becomes more and more demanding, the strings using glassy harmonics, chromatic figures played in tremolo, and acrobatic string-crossing at speed. Sometimes Ravel gives a new metronome mark every few bars, suggesting that he was following a precise underlying blueprint worked out in time as well as shape. Technical difficulties increase in the remarkable second movement, marked ‘Pantoum’. The pantoum is a Malay verse form sometimes imitated by French poets. It has a complicated pattern of lines in which the second and fourth lines of each verse become the first and third of the next verse. Ravel devises his own version, composed of short alternating phrases with distinct characters, the first spiky, ‘oriental’ and pizzicato, the second seductive, smooth and waltz-like. These are juxtaposed not in a four-line verse pattern like the Malay original but in an intricate three-part structure. If we call the spiky motif ‘A’ and the smooth waltz 232


motif ‘B’, we can see that ABA is followed by BAB and then ABA again and so on. In one ‘verse’ the A motif is the leader, and in the next verse the B motif is in the ascendant. Rapid changes of character test the reflexes of all three players; as well as jumping about at lightning speed they must capture the slightly nightmarish alternation of spiky and smooth, pizzicato and bowed, so that the kaleidoscope of moods is presented to the listener in all its tightly coiled brilliance. In the centre of the movement, Ravel achieves a compositional high point when, against the continued alternation of spiky and smooth motifs on the strings, the pianist suddenly turns aside from the fray and finds a large quiet space in which to accommodate a beautiful chorale. It is in a different metre from that of the string parts and has different bar lines, producing a surreal effect of parallel spheres of activity. Roles are reversed a moment later with the strings taking over the melody. Near the end, just before the strings enter at the top of their register with the final spiky phrase, Ravel inserts one single extra beat to enable them to get their hands on the extremely high note required. This single beat may look merciful on paper, but at Ravel’s specified tempo (crotchet = 192) it gives the players only a fraction of a second to find the correct placing. As a pianist with experience of performing the Trio, I often wonder whether Ravel realised that with hands still trembling after the exertions of the Pantoum, it would be very hard to start the Passacaille (Passacaglia) very slowly and quietly in the deep bass register of the piano, where it is difficult to achieve a pianissimo line. Nevertheless, this is the task awaiting the pianist at the start of this majestic movement, in which an underlying bass pattern is repeated and varied ten times, rising from a simple and solemn beginning to a peak of despairing intensity which often reminds me of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream, before it sinks into the depths again. Ravel’s music gives an impression of enormous forces being controlled by a powerful intellect. The instruments are added at precisely controlled intervals and the tension measured out most carefully; for example, in the eight-bar build-up to the fortissimo climax the piano part pulls heavily downwards as the string parts pull heavily upwards, the complex harmonies twisting mightily against one another. The tremendous climax, so slowly built up, is loud only for a few bars, and quickly we perceive that with an iron grip we are being 233


taken inexorably down the other side of the mountain with no time to digest what we saw at the top (perhaps just as well). As the finale opens it is the turn of the strings to calm their nerves and find the tricky harmonics and the double-stopping tremolos which set the wind whistling through the first theme. In this movement all three players are tested to their utmost in terms of instrumental range and technical control. The writing is almost orchestral, or at least gives the impression that more than three people must be playing because there is so much sound and so much going on. Once again the rhythm is Basque in flavour; passages of five beats in the bar alternate with passages with seven. Further instability is given by the fact that phrases alternate between long-short patterns (in the opening section) and short-long patterns (for example, where all the instruments dive down to a lower register for the first time). Twice in the movement Ravel rips aside the curtain to reveal a massive fanfarelike theme announced by the piano while the strings trill frantically above it like fire alarms. A premonition of war, perhaps? On the second and climactic appearance of this fanfare the effect is heightened by the violin and cello swooping in hysterical unison across arpeggios and rushing scales. On the final page, as we hurtle towards the end, Ravel crams in an improbable number of thematic motifs in canon into the top, middle and bass of the piano part – too fast to be detected by the innocent ear, but contributing to a feeling of being almost choked with things to say. The French violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, while preparing Ravel’s fiendishly difficult Sonata for Violin and Cello, once told him, ‘It’s too complicated. It must be great fun writing such difficult stuff, but no one’s going to play it except virtuosos.’ Ravel responded, ‘Good! Then I shan’t be assassinated by amateurs!’ This may sound elitist, but the fact is that Ravel’s imagination was exceptionally brilliant, and his musical language evolved to match his vision.

68. Piano Concerto in G major ‘It is a concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written in very much the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be light-hearted and brilliant.’ So said Ravel about his 234


G major piano concerto, one of his last works. Eyebrows may be raised at the claim that Mozart’s piano concertos are ‘light-hearted’, but Ravel was probably referring to their qualities of restraint, clarity and outward as well as inward beauty. Despite Ravel’s airy statement about what concertos ‘should’ be, however, his own concertos reveal a more complicated picture. The G major concerto forms one half of an intriguing pair with the other piano concerto he composed at the same time – the Concerto for the Left Hand, a much darker and more troubled piece. As a pair, the two concertos are like the double masks of comedy and tragedy used in the ancient Greek amphitheatres and still seen as decorative sculptures in the theatres of today. The mask is an appropriate symbol for Ravel’s artistic personality. The man himself was elegant, dapper, and secretive about his private life. His music is crafted with incredible skill, yet many listeners have the feeling that he uses its exterior sheen to conceal a depth of emotion he was reluctant to bring to the surface. He often used irony to offset emotion, and his mastery of styles like orientalism, neo-classicism or Spanish folk style sometimes seems like deflecting lenses which he used to ward off too direct a view of his heart. In the G major piano concerto, there are several such styles, including jazz. Ravel was fascinated by jazz in the early 1920s when it first appeared in Paris cabarets, and used it in pieces such as his Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major. When he toured the United States in 1928, he made an effort to go and hear leading jazz musicians – Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke. He met George Gershwin, whose Rhapsody in Blue (1924) he admired, and was fascinated by his nimble piano-playing. Ravel loved the complex chords of jazz, its ‘blue notes’ and its experiments with polytonality (more than one key at once). In fact, Ravel instinctively ‘got’ jazz in a way which even some of his American colleagues did not. Vexed by their slowness, he used the opportunity of an article in the Musical Digest to tell American intellectuals to ‘Take Jazz Seriously’: ‘You Americans take jazz too lightly. You seem to feel that it is cheap, vulgar, momentary. Abroad, we take jazz seriously. It is influencing our work.’ When Ravel got back from the United States he embarked on his G major piano concerto. The role of the pianist is deliberately different from that of the typical Romantic soloist. At the start, the piano is almost merged with the 235


orchestra, adding polytonal sparkle to an orchestral theme reminiscent of the puppet-like capers in Stravinsky’s Petrushka. When the piano does ‘speak’ for the first time, it is in the muted, velvet tones of a nightclub jazz singer, a contralto voice perhaps – not out to dazzle us, but to draw us into a languorous world. Moreover, the piano speaks in the middle register of the instrument, using quite a narrow compass of notes (not much more than an octave) for its melody. Gradually the piano leads us to the gorgeous slow second theme, in E major, still confining itself to simple notes and rhythms – in fact the second theme has a pentatonic, oriental flavour. A passage of rapid fingerwork follows, which will be echoed in the finale, but it is significant that when the cadenza arrives, it is the luscious slow E major theme which the pianist wishes to return to and mull over, using quiet trills to convey the melody (almost like the effect of an Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928). Interestingly, the cadenza precedes the reprise of the opening material, just as happens in the first movement of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. The slow movement, one of Ravel’s finest creations, is a very slow and longbreathed melody mainly in crotchets, moving in slow triple time. But the bass part moves in quavers and touches in the bass note again at the half-bar, cutting across the rhythm of the melody. This creates a gentle friction between the hands; in addition, the subtly changing phrase lengths of the melody (four bars, three bars, one bar) pull against the expected four- or eight-bar units. Once again, the piano confines itself to its middle register and to quite a small range of notes, as though humming to itself. The movement is essentially in three parts: a long unaccompanied piano solo, a central section in which piano and orchestra float back into the world of jazz, culminating in a wonderfully wrenching climax, and a reprise in which the orchestra (with cor anglais in the limelight) takes over the opening theme and the piano decorates it with quiet filigree passagework. Ravel once said that he modelled this movement on the slow movement of Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings K581. Mozart’s movement has a similar design and a similar sense of time being almost suspended by the slow-moving beats of the main melody, but Ravel’s is more stylised, almost like a conscious melding of old French harpsichord music with the cool Antique of Erik Satie, 236


with a visit to George Gershwin in the middle. For the pianist, this is a most satisfying movement to play, offering the challenge of spinning a very long line in a calm atmosphere, of responding to the jazz harmonies in the middle, and then using all one’s technical art to create a shimmering haze around the slow melody when it is reprised by the orchestra. When Marguerite Long, the French pianist who premiered the concerto, told Ravel how much she admired the effortless beauty of the opening phrase, he replied, ‘That flowing phrase! How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!’ The finale picks up on the circus-like atmosphere of the first movement. A few loud orchestral chords, which sound as if they could be the closing bars and indeed are later used as exactly that, end with the crack of the wooden percussion instrument known as ‘the whip’, conjuring up a circus ringmaster. This triggers a perpetuum mobile which keeps the pianist busy almost throughout the movement. An array of jaunty themes passes in front of us, sometimes led by the pianist, sometimes by the wind players. There is a quasi-military feel to some of the themes, but perhaps more in the spirit of a circus band or a parade of toy soldiers. Petrushka comes to mind again at the reprise where, as the orchestra restates the opening material, the piano seems to screech with delight, flinging itself about in the high treble with convulsive movements. All the themes flash before us until the procession is brought to a decisive halt by the same few chords we heard at the beginning of the movement.




‘Stand up and take your dissonance like a man!’


The first half of the twentieth century was a challenging time for the piano. The First World War swept so much away, and in its wake were changed attitudes. With the advent of radio and the increasing availability of recordings in the 1920s and 1930s there was a seismic shift to music being produced remotely. Until now, you either played the piano yourself or listened to it being played in your presence. Now there was an exciting new way to listen to piano music even when you were nowhere near a piano. Records were expensive at first, but as the cost came down, more and more music was listened to passively (a trend which has continued). When people discovered how easy it was to put on a record and hear someone doing it ‘properly’, playing the piano lost some of its domestic purpose as well as some of its aspirational quality. Amateur pianists now had numerous opportunities to realise the limitations of their own techniques. And Uncle Fred’s way of playing that Chopin waltz suddenly didn’t seem so charming when you’d heard it played in your own living room by Paderewski. Not only the classics were available on disc – there was huge interest in buying records of popular music. Researchers went out with recording machines and captured the sound of folk music in rural communities. Exotic sounds from around the world became accessible; information flooded in through radio and eventually television. This resulted in waves of experimentation from composers who opened their minds to Eastern philosophies, theories of chance, and new organisational principles to rival more Eurocentric developments including ‘the emancipation of the dissonance’, as Schoenberg put it in 1926. As popular music eclipsed classical music in terms of its fan base, many composers seemed to retreat into intellectual fortresses where they pursued their musical experiments in a spirit of defiance. In a sense, the piano was fortunate: it found a new lease of life in blues, light music and jazz. But it also held its ground with composers of art music who, like their predecessors, saw the piano as an outlet for personal declaration.



CHARLES IVES (1874–1954) 69. Piano Sonata no. 2, ‘Concord’ Charles Ives was an American composer who had no need to make a living from music because he was making a lot of money as an executive in a life-insurance firm. He was a deep thinker in the insurance world, believing in the social power of life insurance to relieve struggling families at times of crisis, and he devised a widely used formula for calculating how much life insurance a person needed to take out. In 1918 he wrote a book on Life Insurance and its Relation to Inheritance Tax, still considered a classic in its field. Allegedly, many of his colleagues in the insurance industry were surprised to learn in later years that he also wrote music. In musical terms Ives was a loner, working in isolation and hardly recognised as a composer until late in his life, when he had long stopped composing. He had a highly experimental approach, fostered by his music-teacher father who liked to ‘stretch his ears’ by making him sing a tune in one key while his father accompanied him in another. Ives senior conducted a marching band, and young Charles received further ear-stretching as he sat in the town square in Danbury, Connecticut, listening to various bands playing simultaneously on different sides of the square and marching past one another with exciting cacophonous results. It is hardly surprising that he developed a fascination with polytonality (using several keys at once) and polyrhythm. He went further, experimenting with quarter-tones (half the distance of a semitone), unusual time signatures, music without bar lines and deliberate dissonance. ‘Stand up and take your dissonance like a man!’ he once advised. He thought there would come a day when ‘schoolchildren will whistle popular tunes in quartertones’, though so far when this happens it is usually by accident. Ives had a philosophical approach to music, believing it to inhabit a realm of ideas which could be appreciated ‘purely’. ‘My God! What has sound to do with music!’ he exclaimed in Essays before a Sonata. Instruments were ‘the perennial difficulty’, dictating and restricting what a composer could write. ‘Is it the composer’s fault that man has only ten fingers?’ he demanded. ‘Why can’t music go out in the same way it comes in to a man, without having to crawl over a fence of sounds, thoraxes, catguts, wire, wood and brass?’ (As he had no immediate expectation of 242


performances he was, of course, in the unusual position of not having to consider the practical needs of real musicians.) In his Essays he makes the startling remark, ‘That music must be heard, is not essential – what it sounds like may not be what it is.’ This has the ring of Lewis Carroll and Alice’s topsy-turvy world, but it also seems to be the cue for John Cage and the conceptualists to step forward with, for example, pieces that consist only of silence. In 1911 Ives conceived the idea of writing a piano sonata in four movements to celebrate four of the philosophers and writers who made up the Transcendentalist movement based in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century. The movement’s name came from their belief that we all have intuitive knowledge about ourselves and the world which does not come to us through our five senses, but ‘transcends’ these usual channels of information. The movement was progressive, anti-slavery, critical of the government, supportive of women’s rights and respectful of nature. Their leader was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was against mindless conformity and believed that each person should find ‘an original relation to the universe’. In an influential essay, Emerson exhorted Americans to stop looking to Europe for their inspiration and strive to develop a genuine American individuality. All of this struck a chord with Ives. The Concord Sonata, as it became known, was written around 1915. Ives published it at his own expense in 1920, but it was not performed until John Kirkpatrick’s iconic performance (playing, incredibly, from memory) in 1939. It is the grandest of Ives’s piano pieces and is considered a ground-breaking American work. There is an Ivesian contradiction in the fact that it uses avantgarde language to look back nostalgically to a simpler, more idealistic era. It quotes the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata in every movement and is, indeed, a little like seeing Beethoven’s late piano music reflected in a cracked mirror. Appropriately, there is a sense of stormy improvisation, as Ives would probably have agreed, for he always played the work slightly differently and once said it was his only piece which ‘whenever I turn to it, seems unfinished’. The whole keyboard is plundered for sound effects and chords as rugged as can be devised; many of the chords span a tenth, which really means that only someone with a big hand can tackle it. 243


Unlike many traditional piano sonatas, which culminate in a brilliant finale, Ives starts with the most complicated movement and works backwards. ‘Emerson’, the first movement, is an uncompromising portrait of a great man expressed in huge craggy chords, long phrases without bar lines, and dense textures with different things going on in different parts. The impression is one of sustained effort and heroic seriousness. Here and there the outlines of a familiar hymn or American folk song peep through, but are submerged in waves of dissonant commentary. The second movement, ‘Hawthorne’ (dedicated to the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne), is a mercurial, extremely difficult scherzo with passages of crazed ragtime, anticipations of modern jazz, slow Beethovenian contemplation, jagged cadenzas, and a famous passage in which the pianist must use a special piece of wood (14¾ inches long) to press down the black notes to create huge quiet clusters of sound over an interval that no human hand could span. Even a century later, the ghostly effect is usually lost amid the audience’s incredulity on seeing the block of wood. ‘The Alcotts’ is the slow movement, a portrait of the family made famous by Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women – her father Bronson Alcott was a member of the Transcendentalists. This is written in simpler harmonies suggestive of hymns. Because of the descriptions in Louisa’s much-loved novel we can easily visualise the Alcott family gathered round the hearth for family prayers as one of the girls ‘lovingly touched the beautiful black and white keys and pressed the bright pedals’. ‘Thoreau’, the fourth movement, is a celebration of the flute-playing philosopher who became the most famous of the Transcendentalists because of his identification with nature and his wish to ‘live deep and suck out all the marrow of life’, a process he describes in Walden, his account of two years spent living in a cabin by Walden Pond. Ives uses the full register of the piano to create a sense of space and calm, though the dissonance of his harmonic language disturbs it, like midges in evening light. Fragments from other movements and snippets of songs make ghostly appearances in a rhapsodic journey. Towards the end there is a magnificently impractical touch where Ives asks for a flute player to contribute a brief 244


descant. Over a tolling bass line the music broadens out towards the end, though its final bars seem inconclusive, as though there is more to be said.

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG (1874–1951) 70. Five Pieces for Piano, op. 23 A century after Schoenberg unveiled his radical new ‘twelve-note’ (or ‘twelvetone’) method, it is still highly controversial. To Schoenberg himself, it was a game-changing discovery akin to Einstein’s discoveries in physics. To some musicians it was an intriguing development which deserved to be explored, and respected for its intellectual inventiveness. It inspired other kinds of ‘serialism’, in which series of not just notes, but also rhythms, tone colours and other elements might be systematically organised. To many listeners, however, twelve-note music was strange and off-putting and has remained so despite Schoenberg’s prediction that we would all get used to it. Schoenberg’s early work is in late-Romantic style with gorgeous harmonies, but he came to feel that works like his Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder had shown him the limits of that sort of language. Mahler and Richard Strauss supported him in his early style, but he found himself largely isolated as he moved through atonality to his new twelve-note technique: ‘the method of composition with twelve notes related only to one another’. It’s important to realise that he saw this as a development rooted in the past (about which he was extremely knowledgeable and a brilliant analyst), a natural next step to take after works such as Strauss’s opera Salome had virtually shaken music loose from its traditional anchors. If everything had become too free, here was an exciting new way to organise it. Music had always been organised in one way or another. In twelve-note technique, the composer takes the twelve notes of the chromatic scale and devises an order or ‘series’ for them, in which all the conventional hierarchies of harmony have been banished. This is the ‘row’ or ‘note-row’, not ‘a theme’ in the familiar sense, but a source from which themes are drawn. Different ‘rows’ have different characters according to whether, for example, there are large 245


jumps between individual notes, or whether small intervals huddle together, but in terms of harmony, all the notes are treated as equally important. The twelve-note row operates somewhat like a mathematical series and can be manipulated in all kinds of ways. The notes may be piled vertically into chords, spread out horizontally as ‘tunes’, divided between different instruments of the orchestra, distributed between the ‘voices’ of a piano piece, played backwards or upside-down, or played in small sections, separately or simultaneously. In this method there was no feeling of a home key, no hierarchy of harmonies such as had dominated Western classical music for centuries. On the other hand, chaos was not the aim: the ideal was to create a new and compelling logic. Schoenberg believed that in time, people would come to regard twelve-note music as commonplace: ‘Grocer’s boys will whistle serial music on their rounds’ (a prediction which was wrong in several respects). Schoenberg found it useful to work out new ideas at the piano, and his piano pieces often mark significant turning points in his career. The Three Pieces, op. 11, marked a period of atonality, or ‘free’ writing in no key at all. The Five Pieces, op. 23, and the Suite, op. 25, composed in parallel between 1920 and 1923, marked the arrival of serialism and the twelve-note method. Schoenberg still uses the gestures, shapes and forms (dance forms, for example) of older music, but his use of ‘note rows’ gives his music such an unusual effect that we are surprised to find it still written in crotchets, quavers and semiquavers. For some listeners it is disorienting to recognise the familiar outlines of rising and falling phrases, arpeggios and chords, dialogue between the hands, and so on, but expressed in notes which are almost entirely perplexing and difficult to remember. One could argue that Schoenberg’s method focuses exclusively on the interest it affords to the composer, and ignores the comfort of the listener. Some listeners are drawn to explore this world, but others are alienated by it. In turning away from the luxurious style of late-Romantic piano music, Schoenberg resolved to write sparsely. ‘Anyone writing for piano should never forget that even the best pianist has only two hands . . . the only way is to write as thinly as possible: as few notes as possible,’ he said in 1923 (in defiance of the fact that many great composers of piano music have triumphed by ignoring the limitations of ‘only two hands’). His Five Pieces, op. 23, look quite sparing on the page. 246


Slender lines of music do interact, but rarely are there more than three notes sounding at once. Phrases are short, more like fragments; the score is heavily marked with accents, staccatos and volatile expression marks. Quiet passages are subdivided into p, pp, ppp and pppp; loud ones into f, ff, fff. Almost every note has some kind of instruction attached to it, which makes the player’s experience rather different from that of playing Romantic piano music; it feels as if one’s concentration is being forced to travel slowly along the line, attentive to microscopic details. Many pianists find it difficult to get the precise pitches to ‘stick’ in their memory without sustained effort. A lot of the music is marked to be played quietly, but this is not the quietness of tranquillity; rather, it feels like a kind of dangerous quietness, in which lights come and go, and strange voices chatter from places we can’t see. The first four pieces just have numbers to identify them, but the fifth piece is entitled ‘Walzer’ (Waltz). Although it evokes the familiar Viennese dance, this waltz is at pains to avoid any hint of ease or complacency, and its spindly legs seem to cavort in the kind of twilit strangeness that Schoenberg had perfected in Pierrot Lunaire. In the concert hall, Schoenberg’s serial technique has never been box-office gold, but his fevered harmonic language did find a home in the film world, where a number of his pupils and disciples (David Raksin, Bernard Herrmann, Scott Bradley, Gerard Schurmann) made money by writing scores for ‘film noir’, horror movies, supernatural tales and even Tom and Jerry cartoons. In the 1944 cartoon Puttin’ on the Dog, little mouse Jerry dons a dog’s-head mask and runs about, terrifying his companions to the tinkling of a twelve-note row. ‘I hope Dr Schoenberg will forgive me for using his system to produce funny music,’ wrote his pupil Scott Bradley, ‘but even the boys in the orchestra laughed when we were recording it.’

BÉLA BARTÓK (1881–1945) 71. Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, op. 20/Sz 74 At the beginning of the twentieth century, many composers were searching for a way to escape the overheated language of late-Romantic music. Some very 247


different escape routes were found, ranging from austere intellectualism to a conscious engagement with ‘the music of the people’. Bartók followed the latter path and was one of the composers who took it most seriously, travelling to many regions of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia as well as further afield to record and transcribe folk songs. As one can still see in a famous photo, he travelled with a phonograph, into whose horn the peasants were invited to sing. The nuances of their singing were hard to capture in traditional notation, but with some gentle adjustment and the frequent use of grace notes and ‘pause’ marks, Bartók managed to preserve thousands of folk songs and the way they were sung. This turned out to be even more precious a collection than he first thought, because after the First World War certain boundaries were redrawn and some of the territories he had explored were no longer accessible to him. When Liszt wrote his Hungarian Rhapsodies in the 1850s, he thought he was incorporating genuine folk music into his work. However, it was later realised that Liszt’s ‘folk music’ was more likely to have been composed for popular gypsy bands of the time to play, not even necessarily in the countryside but in urban settings as far afield as Austria and Germany. Liszt’s ‘Hungarian’ music fell from favour, especially when Bartók and his colleague Zoltán Kodály began revealing the results of their researches. They discovered that the genuine folk songs of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia used scales more varied than had been supposed, and that many exotic-sounding modes were widely used by peasants. Their tuning and their rhythms were also varied and subtle. Bartók’s immersion in this research had a profound influence on his own composition. He realised that Eastern European folk music was a rich resource into which a modern composer could tap. Its varied rhythms and metres pointed him towards new freedoms and modes of expression, all the more satisfying to use because of their ancient origin. Folk music is often thought to have a jollifying or sentimentalising effect on classical composers, but for Bartók it had the effect of intensifying his musical expression. It is clear that he felt a responsibility to use these folk elements with respect. In 1920, when the First World War was over and the shape of Hungary had changed, Bartók wrote Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, a richly 248


imaginative work for his own instrument, the piano. In the 1940s, after he had moved to America, he described the work in a Harvard lecture as a transcription of folk music in which ‘the added composition-treatment attains the importance of an original work, and the used folk melody is only to be regarded as a kind of motto. Some people believe it is easier to write a transcription than an original work,’ he went on. ‘To the contrary, it is my belief that in some cases the use of a given theme presents greater difficulty because of the restriction given by it . . . To write a good transcription, the composer must have creative imagination at his disposal as well, quite as much as in the writing of an original work.’ The Eight Improvisations bear out the truth of this view with their skilful combination of old melodies with ‘advanced’ harmonies. The first two numbers form a pair of the slow-fast type familiar from Hungarian (and many other kinds of) folk music: no. 1 is the simplest, almost a straight transcription of a folk song in three verses to which Bartók supplies increasingly outlandish harmonies. No. 2 is a sardonic-sounding narrative which takes four verses through a cycle of four keys a major third apart. No. 3 inhabits a more adventurous harmonic world; a sad song is accompanied by poignant and unexpected harmonies which Bartók directs to be played at first ‘without colour’. In no. 4 the sardonic mood returns with a vigorous dance and offbeat accents, and these become even more prominent in the whirling dance of no. 5, its ‘verses’ separated by acid little transitions. No. 6 is a virtuosic dialogue between a black-key theme and a white-key accompaniment, and between a gruff deep voice and a more coaxing high one. In this piece there is much use of pairs of notes with the characteristic short-long rhythm (LA-daaa, with the accent on the short note), so frequently heard in Bartók’s Hungarian music. The final two pieces form another slow-fast pair. No. 7 was commissioned by the French magazine La Revue Musicale in 1920 as a contribution to a ‘tombeau’ or memorial to Debussy. Bartók was a great admirer of Debussy and his tribute is a setting of a Hungarian cradle song, here offered in a spirit of lamenting. Finally the eighth piece, beginning in the key with which no. 7 ended, whisks us back to the world of the energetic peasant dance. In its middle section we meet the kind of ‘tune plus mocking laughter’ which Bartók later uses to such effect in the 249


‘Intermezzo Interrotto’ of his Concerto for Orchestra. At the end of the eighth Improvisation there is a more or less straight-faced reprise of the tune in octaves, but accompanied in the high treble by a scathing commentary in wrenching offbeat chords. The harmonies of this final pair of pieces make one realise why Bartók said that ‘in my Eight Improvisations for Piano I reached, I believe, the extreme limit in adding most daring accompaniments to simple folk tunes’.

72. Contrasts, Trio for Clarinet,Violin and Piano, Sz 111 In 1938, when he was still in Hungary, Bartók received an unusual commission from the jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman, the ‘King of Swing’. The invitation came via the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, who had persuaded Goodman to ask Bartók to write something for Szigeti and Goodman to play together. Goodman, enormously popular as the bandleader of the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the leader of the Benny Goodman Quartet, had just performed an iconic concert with his band at New York’s Carnegie Hall, an event which not only marked the first concert in that august venue by a swing band, but also the first mixed-race concert in the hall. It was a huge and unexpected success, and made Goodman realise that there was a classical audience out there who were ready to become his fans. He was keen to broaden his repertoire and raise his profile in the classical world, and he started to commission new works from classical composers. He specified that Bartók should write something that could fit on two sides of a 78rpm record, lasting no more than seven minutes altogether. And (perhaps at Szigeti’s suggestion) he asked that Bartók make constructive use of the two-side format by writing something in the traditional slow-fast pair of movements often found in Hungarian folk music, the slow section being called ‘lassú’ and the fast one ‘friss’. Bartók decided to write a trio for clarinet, violin and piano – the only time he included a wind instrument in his chamber music. Rather than seeking to blend the sounds of the violin and clarinet, he wanted to showcase each instrument in its own right, perhaps leading to his choice of Contrasts for the title. As preparation, he listened to some recordings of Benny Goodman’s trio with Teddy Wilson 250


(piano) and Gene Krupa (drums). Perhaps this was what led to him conceiving the piano part a little like the rhythm section of a swing band – keeping the beat, highlighting the offbeats, supporting the soloists with a cushion of sound. There was another inspiration too – Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, whose middle movement is a delicious ‘Blues’ with a strummed violin part at the beginning, very similar to what Bartók writes for the violin in Contrasts. The two-part ‘lassúfriss’ format was realised in the first movement, ‘Verbunkos’, and the third movement, ‘Sebes’. However, the first movement is not really slow or solemn, so eventually Bartók added a real slow movement, ‘Pihenő’ (Taking a Rest). By this time the whole piece had far outstripped the specified seven minutes. ‘Verbunkos’ is a recruiting dance as used by the Habsburg army when they came marching into a village looking for new recruits. To command admiration, the hussars would dance for the villagers; firstly the sergeant with dignified gestures, then lower-ranking officers with energetic movements and finally the youngest soldiers with jumps and the clicking of spurs. The music was played by Romani (gypsy) groups brought along by the army. The recruiting technique was to get people drunk while they were watching the display and then conscript them into the army, marching them away before they had sobered up. Thus there is a lot of strutting and parading in the first movement, contrasted with quiet, blurry sections which may represent the hazy state of mind of new recruits. Just before the clarinet cadenza, there is a passage (‘poco rallentando’) which seems to mimic the sound of an old wind-up gramophone player running down – an in-joke, perhaps, for those who knew of Bartók’s phonographic researches. The middle movement is one of those ‘night pieces’ for which Bartók became famous – not a sensuous nocturne like one of Chopin’s, but a quiet, sombre evocation of what one might call the darker side of night. There are rustles and whispers in the undergrowth; lines move tentatively towards one another and drift apart again; things glide about very quietly, sometimes coming near to us in a scary way. At the climax, the clarinet becomes agitated, the violin accompanying it in anxious tremolos. In the last line, the piano takes the lead with a quiet chorale, which has almost the effect that Janáček’s chorales do in his Overgrown Path piano pieces, a moment of benediction. 251


The final movement opens with an unusual effect: the violinist is asked to use a second violin, its strings tuned differently (the bottom string a semitone higher, and the top string a semitone lower) so that it sounds deliberately ‘out of tune’ (a sidelong glance, also, at the violin solo at the start of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre). Brazenly playing on these discordant intervals, the violin introduces a lively folk dance with which the piano soon joins in. (After a short while, the violinist is given a chance to change back to their usual violin while the piano and clarinet ‘twiddle their thumbs’ musically.) Bartók relishes the offbeat accents, mainly played by the piano, which are common to both folk music and jazz. The central section brings a complete change of mood: a quiet, swaying Bulgarian dance in a rhythm notated as 8+5/8, that is, thirteen quavers in the bar. Bartók supplies dotted lines to show the subdivisions of the thirteen quavers into 3+2+3+2+3, probably to convey the flexible approach to the dance beat which he had observed on his folk-music-collecting travels. This central section, with its clusters of chords and the instruments groping about in opposite directions, is the most haunting in the piece. From now on, the piano becomes fully involved in the action, proposing the next theme and remaining energetically engaged in its development. Now it is the violin’s turn to have a cadenza, a fiendishly tricky one which requires the violinist to play two-note chords while also plucking an open string rhythmically. After the cadenza, the energy never lets up, all three instruments tussling with one another in a dance which gets faster and faster until in the final bars there is a sudden halt and a suggestion, perhaps, of a dazed salute. When Bartók visited New York in 1940, he performed Contrasts at Carnegie Hall with Goodman and Szigeti, and they also made a famous gramophone recording (on two 78rpm discs).

ALBAN BERG (1885–1935) 73. Piano Sonata, op. 1 Berg’s piano sonata is one of the classical music world’s most remarkable ‘op. 1’s, a masterpiece in the old sense of the word, meaning the fine piece of work which a 252


graduating apprentice would submit to a Guild to obtain membership and recognition as ‘a master’ of the craft. Alban Berg was one of the three most famous composers of the Second Viennese School: Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern. Berg is the one who seems to retain the closest links to traditional musical language, even though he was a passionate disciple of Schoenberg’s radical new compositional methods. People often find the music of the mature Schoenberg and Webern somewhat ‘cold’, whereas Berg’s music is perceived to be ‘warmer’ and more sensuous. Berg’s private life was like an episode from Arthur Schnitzler’s scandalous play, La Ronde, about the casual liaisons and social transgressions of turn-of-thecentury Vienna. When Berg was only seventeen he fathered a daughter with a family servant twice his age, who ‘knew her place’ and kept the little girl out of the way. Berg later married the glamorous singer Helene Nahowski, widely spoken of as a biological daughter of the Emperor Franz Josef I; hidden in the piano in the Berg household were semi-precious jewels thought to be gifts to Helene from the Emperor. Berg’s marriage was ‘perfect’, yet he had a secret affair with Alma Mahler’s sister-in-law, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the course of which he charted cryptically and minutely in his Lyric Suite for string quartet. In letters to his wife he talks of composing music as an intoxicating experience akin to the dreams one might have under the influence of morphine. His operas Wozzeck and Lulu, dealing with themes of jealousy, insanity and murder, seem to have given him a way of sublimating some ingredients of his fantasy life. His wife underwent analysis with Sigmund Freud, and it is tempting to imagine their conversations. As a teenager, Berg was more interested in literature than music, but he had written a number of songs. In 1904, when he was nineteen, his sister noticed an advertisement for counterpoint and harmony lessons being offered by someone called Arnold Schoenberg. Berg signed up and began studying with the man whose temperament and musical ambition would powerfully affect his own. By 1907 Berg had begun to use Schoenberg’s method of ‘developing variation’; that is, deriving all the elements of a composition from motifs announced at the beginning. It is significant that Berg decided to announce himself to the world with this one-movement piano sonata. He intended to write several movements, but found himself 253


stuck for ideas after completing the first one, and eventually accepted Schoenberg’s suggestion that the single movement was already a complete statement. Berg’s style of piano writing in op. 1 leans heavily on Romantic piano literature, but his way of composing themes was learned from Schoenberg. (This was at a time when Schoenberg was still in his ‘atonal’ phase – he hadn’t yet invented his twelve-note technique.) Berg’s themes are constructed from tiny motifs of two or three notes which he uses as building blocks, to be turned upside down, played backwards, stretched out, played in a different order, stacked vertically so that they formed chords, played simultaneously with other motifs, transposed into other keys, used as accompaniments, and so on. The motif may be a rhythm, a dotted rhythm for example, which we can recognise even when it appears in different melodic costumes. The sense of a home key is still present, but its hold has been consciously loosened. Sometimes we do indeed seem to be in the B minor of the key signature, while at others we seem to be floating or even writhing in limbo. One might put it the other way round and say that Berg sets out to explore a non-tonal, otherworldly realm but finds the gravity of B minor acting upon him whether he likes it or not. The form of a traditional sonata movement is easy enough to discern. We can hear an opening theme, a transition, a slower contrasting theme, and there are clearly links between them – for example, the three-note rising motif (G-C-F#) we hear in a dotted rhythm at the very beginning, which is woven into every strand in the texture at some point. Smooth progress is blurred by Berg’s constant instructions to accelerate, to slow down, to play suddenly faster than the opening tempo, or much slower; sometimes it feels as if scarcely two bars together are allowed to remain in a stable tempo, and this does indeed give a nightmarish ‘morphia-dream’ quality to the story. After the exposition is repeated, we move into the development, a stranger and colder harmonic world with nervy little crescendos and diminuendos pushing and pulling at the musical lines as they clash and rise to a climax. After a peak of intensity has been reached, the second theme is recalled, followed by the first; these themes go on developing and apparently struggling to reach some kind of landing place, only to take off again and become more anguished. 254


Berg packs the notation with instructions which are hard to fulfil simultaneously: to play accents within a diminuendo, to get faster while also delivering tiny ups and downs of volume, or to be ‘very expressive’ in one hand while also playing ‘molto marcato’ (very marked) and ‘schwer’ (heavy) in the other, all within a general slowing-down. After the drama has played itself out, it is almost a shock when the music quietens down and commits itself to a final cadence in B minor, the rising three-note motif of the opening being heard four times as it rises from octave to octave. Ravel once wisely said that when you set out to copy the work of someone you admire, you may find that your instinct is to diverge from the model in certain ways, and this divergence will show you your own voice. This seems to be the case with Berg’s piano sonata, written under the strict eye of Arnold Schoenberg but diverging from his rigorous style in ways which showed Berg’s distinctive (and, many would say, more likeable) musical personality.

SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891–1953) 74. Piano Sonata no. 7 in B flat major, op. 83 Prokofiev’s so-called ‘War Sonatas’, his piano sonatas 6–8, were written in Moscow during the Second World War when circumstances were painfully difficult for Russians and the mood was tense. Earlier in his life Prokofiev had lived and travelled in the United States and Western Europe where he was known as a fine pianist as well as a composer, but in 1936 he made the decision to go back to live in Russia, perhaps thinking that his fame would protect him from criticism from Stalin’s regime. This was the time of Stalin’s ‘purges’. Prokofiev survived, but many of his friends and colleagues did not. His music was officially criticised for ‘formalism’, that is to say, being more concerned with artistic form than with supplying music which pleased the people and mirrored their Communist aims. He was ‘invited’ to compose music which fulfilled these aspirations and to some extent he complied, but conflicted feelings found their way into his piano sonatas. Their complicated language 255


makes it possible to ‘read’ them in different ways, for example as depicting the struggle of the Soviet people, but they can also be read as portraits of inner anguish. The seventh sonata has become the most widely known of the ‘War Sonatas’. It was written in 1942 and premiered in Moscow by Sviatoslav Richter in January 1943, just as the Russian army was on the verge of its unbelievably hard-won victory against the Nazis at Stalingrad. Richter recounted that he had only four days to learn the (hugely demanding) piece. He learned it on a piano in the home of his highly regarded former piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. The piano was in the bedroom, where as it happened, Mrs Neuhaus lay sick, but she had to listen to Richter practising the ferocious finale for hours each day. The premiere, in the hall of the House of Trade Unions, was a huge success and earned Prokofiev the first of his Stalin Prizes. It is difficult to know what the authorities made of this grimly driving music, especially its outer movements. Did they see it as representing the unstoppable rush of the workers towards an ideal society? Did they hear the incessant working of factory machines, the heroic activity of military manoeuvres? Even today it seems as if objective and subjective elements are fighting to be heard in Prokofiev’s violent, dissonant score. On the page, the music looks clean and economical, almost like a Bach Invention or a Haydn allegro. But Prokofiev’s acid harmonies and his apparently deliberate avoidance of memorable melodies gives it a totally different effect, its clarity ruthless, its tone insistent and cold. In the first movement there are two themes, one fast and chaotic and one slow and sad, but the contrast does not bring relief: we are clearly still tangled up in things we cannot escape. As Richter said, ‘We are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance.’ Repeated notes are hammered out, and repeated-note motifs are used both as themes and accompaniments, as well as being banged out in the bass like the terrifying ‘knocks on the door’ that so many Soviet citizens feared. The slow movement, at first almost Romantic in style, is in the surprisingly distant key of E major. Why? The answer may lie in a tune quoted in the middle voice at the start: a song by Schumann with words by Joseph von Eichendorff. 256


‘Wehmut’ (Melancholy) from Schumann’s Liederkreis, op. 39, tells us: ‘Yes, I can sometimes sing as if I were happy, but secretly tears press, and my heart feels free.’ Prokofiev disguises it by displacing the tune slightly so that the emphasis falls on a different note than it does in the Schumann, and indeed it seems that none of the political elite noticed the reference, which would surely have been condemned as a selfishly private emotion. From this lyrical beginning the piano whips everything up into a huge despairing climax, bells tolling high and low. These bells, or perhaps the pendulums of clocks, continue marking out the time implacably even after things have subsided. The ‘Wehmut’ theme returns briefly, interrupted by a clashing bell-like chord in the treble. The finale is a real tour de force, a bombardment of repeated notes and percussive chords with scarcely any let-up. There are no ‘themes’ in the orthodox sense and indeed it is as if Prokofiev has deliberately subtracted melodies from his design in order to replace them with pounding motifs, every one of which counts. Its time signature of 7/8 allows a crucial degree of alleviation of the pianist’s physical strain because the asymmetry of the rhythmic patterns, 3+4, 2+3+2, and so on, means that the main stresses alternate from hand to hand. And in fact the irregular time signature imparts a strange kind of life to this implacable machine. Prokofiev’s first wife Carolina was a Spanish singer, and it is tempting to wonder whether the rhythms of Spanish dance, presumably familiar in the household, had had just the merest influence on Prokofiev’s imagination when he was composing this onslaught. Almost throughout the movement there is the hammered repetition in the bass of a minor third, like some great cog clunking as it moves forward. Perhaps Stravinsky’s ‘Danse Sacrale’, the final section of The Rite of Spring, was in the back of Prokofiev’s mind, for Stravinsky’s Danse employs a very similar device, and for a similar purpose – the evocation of frightening fate, the blows of destiny. Prokofiev marks this third movement ‘Precipitato’, which is a mood rather than a tempo marking, and pianists have played and recorded the movement at widely different tempos, ranging from the almost stately pummelling of its original interpreter Sviatoslav Richter to the recently fashionable scorching presto. 257


FRANCIS POULENC (1899–1963) 75. The Story of Babar the Elephant In the summer of 1940, Poulenc was staying with cousins in the French town of Brive-la-Gaillarde. He was composing music at the piano one day when his fouryear-old cousin Sophie approached with one of her Babar the Elephant books. ‘That’s boring, Uncle Francis. Play this,’ she commanded, putting the picturebook on the piano. Poulenc was amused and started looking through the pictures, improvising little bits of music to suit the scenes. And because of Sophie’s brilliant idea, Poulenc’s musical version of Jean de Brunhoff ’s Babar the Elephant was born. Poulenc worked it up into an extended piece for solo piano and narrator. It was later orchestrated by Jean Françaix. Like Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants, although it is ‘for children’ it is actually very tricky to play, requiring an accomplished technique. In the theatre there’s a saying that you should never work with children or animals – well, in Babar, you have to do both. Babar the Elephant is a collection of vignettes encompassing a range of dances and types of music – waltz, march, toccata, polka, lullaby, fugue, scherzo, schottische (a dance), and French cabaret style. Although the music requires considerable finesse, the pianist may find that the audience has chiefly noticed whether this or that sound effect was believable – the lumbering of elephants, the honking of the car horn, the food poisoning suffered by the king of the elephants – so that the piano music itself tends to be downgraded to the category of illustrative music. This can be frustrating in the light of the work involved in practising the piano part to concert standard, and is probably one reason why Babar is not more often performed in the version for solo piano. The story is that Babar, a little elephant, runs away from the forest after his mother is killed by a hunter. He runs until he comes to a town where his attention is caught by two gentlemen he sees in the street. ‘What lovely clothes they have got! I wish I could have some too!’ thinks Babar. ‘Luckily he was seen by a very rich old lady who understood little elephants and knew at once that he was longing for a smart suit.’ Babar goes to live with the rich old lady, and every morning he drives about in the car she has bought him. Occasionally he thinks wistfully of the 258


forest. Two years later when out for a walk ‘he meets two little elephants with no clothes on’. These are his cousins Arthur and Celeste. He takes them to buy lovely clothes, and then they have tea and cakes at a patisserie. Eventually Arthur and Celeste’s mothers come to town to fetch them home to the forest, and Babar decides to return with them. ‘Alas! That very day the King of the elephants had eaten a bad mushroom. It had poisoned him. He had been very ill. So ill that he died. It was a terrible misfortune.’ After the funeral the elephants gather round to choose a new king. Just then, they hear Babar’s car arriving and are struck by his sophistication. The oldest elephant suggests making Babar their new king. ‘He has come back from the town, where he has lived among men and learned much.’ Babar accepts the crown but tells them that ‘on our journey in the car, Celeste and I got engaged to be married. If I become your King, she will be your Queen.’ The elephants gladly assent, and there is a great wedding party, attended by all the birds and animals. Today, this story makes uncomfortable reading. The ‘naked’ elephant (from Africa, presumably) goes to town (Paris) and learns to wear fine clothes, drive a car, drink tea and eat cakes (bourgeois pursuits). When his cousins arrive in town, he hastens to cover up their nakedness with clothes (see Garden of Eden). Having learned the ways of the idle rich, he is qualified to go home and rule over the ignorant natives, who gratefully acknowledge his superiority. No doubt when the book was published in 1931 it seemed like an amusing and nostalgic parody of French colonialism. To our more informed eyes and ears, the parody now seems insensitive, but it is to be hoped that Poulenc’s finely crafted music can be enjoyed in the spirit in which he wrote it. There are too many delightful touches in the music to enumerate, but here are some: the ‘Rite-of-Spring-ish’ sour-sweet opening, in which Babar’s mother rocks him with her trunk, and his mother’s gentle slow walk as she carries Babar on her back. The charming waltz which Babar dances after being given money by the rich lady – here Poulenc takes the trouble to write idiosyncratic fingering over certain scale passages (3,3,3,3,3,3,3,3,3,3,3,3) which may be some kind of in-joke – perhaps he had seen a child playing the piano like that? There’s the deliberately boring fugue which paces Babar and the old lady through their morning exercises 259


– to my ears, it contains a sly echo of the Allegro finale of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, likewise a moment of earnest effort in the midst of callisthenics. Then there is the fast waltz which tinkles in the background as Babar eats patisseries – almost a music-hall number with its edge of bawdiness. There’s the lovely ‘nocturne’ which represents the old lady’s sadness at losing her little elephant; the high-pitched scherzo as the birds fly off, shrieking joyfully, to deliver wedding invitations; the cabaret polka which everyone dances ‘with good heart’ after the coronation. Although writing in a tuneful style, Poulenc does not abandon his usual habit of threading a kind of meta-narrative into the tunes in the form of ‘wrong’ notes and harmonies that jar slightly. In fact, it is this sense of wry commentary that saves the music from seeming trivial. And it is typical of Poulenc that at the very end, after lulling us with a peaceful night scene (‘Baigné de pedales – on ne mettra jamais assez’) (bathed in pedals – you can never use too much), he bids us farewell with a dissonant note which pings out while the last chord is quietly resonating, as if the composer has suddenly whipped round from the piano and fixed us with a quizzical look.

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906–1975) 76. Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67 From the pianistic point of view, Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E minor is not the most interesting part to play, but artistically it is one of his most powerful works. I can hardly think of another work where there is such a huge difference between the simple, indeed sparse appearance of the notes on the page and the impact they can have on an audience, especially one which knows something of the history of Russia and the Second World War. The trio’s atmosphere is bleak, its manner a strange combination of ironic and despairing. Like other works which Shostakovich wrote during the 1939–45 war, the trio makes powerful use of repeated notes and chords, hammered out to represent oppression, or sadly trudging along in a spirit of exhaustion. This kind 260


of writing, which appears on a grand scale in his Seventh Symphony, has been judged simplistic, crude, rabble-rousing, and in the words of composer Virgil Thomson, ‘seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted’. But its first Russian audiences had suffered greatly through the harsh deprivations of the war; just to read about the horrifying conditions in which Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was rehearsed and performed in Leningrad in August 1942 is to realise that we cannot judge what people needed from music at that moment, or what composers found it possible to say. The Trio in E minor was written in 1944 and is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s close friend, Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky, artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, who had died at the age of forty-one while the orchestra was in evacuation in Siberia. Sollertinsky was a highly cultured man who had introduced Shostakovich to fresh ideas and music which was new to him, including Mahler. Shostakovich was grief-stricken when Sollertinsky died in the middle of the war, and wrote to his widow, ‘I owe all my education to him’. There was another influence on this work: as the Germans withdrew their soldiers from certain regions, news started to come through of the Nazi death camps and the treatment of the Jews. Shostakovich was not Jewish, but his empathy with the victims and his shock at the stories which were starting to circulate was expressed in his piano trio (as well as in other works). The first movement opens with the cello playing a sad Russian-sounding melody in artificial harmonics (in which one finger stops the string while another lightly touches the string a fourth above, producing a note two octaves higher). This gives the tune a glassy, otherworldly sound which some have imagined to be an evocation of ice or wind. This theme is passed around between the instruments and leaves its icy realm to become an active theme of the movement. Then we hear the repeated notes and persistent accompanying figures, first on strings and then on piano, which seem elementary but prove to have a cumulative effect. In the middle of the movement a curious ‘jolly’ theme in G major introduces the idea of ironic dance which will be amplified to such effect in the finale. The dance gathers strength and its character becomes mocking, but its energy drains away again, leaving only plain fragments behind. 261


The second movement is often described as ‘a scherzo’ because it occupies the traditional place for a playful interlude in a longer work, but this belies the dark and demonic atmosphere of this particular movement. Shostakovich gives it an almost impossibly fast metronome mark, but he apparently told a Leningrad violinist who questioned him about it that he used a rickety old metronome which wasn’t reliable and that ‘you, as a musician, should just play as you feel the music and take no notice of those markings, take no notice’. Shostakovich writes many accents – sometimes on every note in the bar – and unusual bowing requests such as three rapid downbows in a row, or fast consecutive upbows with crescendos on each one; to achieve this at the tempo he wants, enormous energy and control are needed. In this movement again there is a ‘jolly’ dance in G major in the middle, but its fortissimo marking and accents make it clear that it is manic rather than cheerful. As for the piano, it breaks away from its accompanying patterns to reiterate the main theme at top speed, jumping awkwardly about the keyboard in the key of F sharp major; the piano part may look simple but the right combination of volume, lightning speed and defiant character requires strong fingers and steady nerves. The slow movement was used after the composer’s death as the musical background to his lying-in-state before his funeral. It is a passacaglia, a form where an underlying pattern of harmonies is repeated in the bass with variations going on in upper parts. J.S. Bach seems to be the inspiration; the tension between the stately passacaglia and the wailing melody is powerfully engineered. The ‘ground bass’ is given to the piano which plays a sequence of eight granite blocks of chords, repeated six times, rising in volume towards the middle and fading away again. The sequence starts in B flat minor and seems to work its way towards a cadence in the trio’s home key of E minor, but before it gets there, it cuts back to the beginning and repeats, giving a sense of thwarted progress. Above, the violin and cello exchange mournful melodic lines, evocative of Jewish laments, which seem to circle around a few notes, striving to break free but not succeeding. The very slow tempo, the quiet dynamic and the intense atmosphere demand the utmost control of the bow by the string players. The final Allegretto supplies the cadence into E which the slow movement had constantly hinted at but not achieved. Immediately we feel a startling change of 262


atmosphere from sorrowful to sardonic. In this finale there is a suggestion of folk music, specifically of Jewish klezmer music, but in the blackest of settings. Shostakovich uses the full repertoire of repeated notes, accents, pounding chords, shrieking strings and obsessive repetition of rhythmic patterns to create a hypnotic atmosphere of menace, even a dance of death. He demands the utmost effort from all three players to build the terrifying energy of the climax, whose sustained volume and intensity can have a shattering effect out of all proportion to the fact that only three people are producing it. At the height of the climax comes a strange passage where the piano breaks into whirling chromatic arpeggios, as if a wind has suddenly blown everyone into the sky, like in a Chagall painting. In the midst of the whirling we hear the theme of the first movement again. The string players are muted, so their attempt to shout out the theme is half-stifled. The wind blows away and the bleak dance returns, now enfeebled. Finally we hear once more the passacaglia ‘chorale’ theme of the slow movement, this time resolving into E major. In many composers’ work, such a turn from the minor to the major key at the end of a work would indicate a peaceful outcome, but in Shostakovich’s trio any suggestion of optimism remains deeply ambiguous. For the players, mixed emotions are guaranteed as their hearts will probably still be thumping from exertion while they try to deliver the hushed phrases of the ending.

77. Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major, op. 102 Not many students get to play the premiere of a piano concerto by their own father at their graduation, but such was the opportunity presented on his nineteenth birthday in May 1957 to Maxim, the son of Dmitri Shostakovich. Maxim was a young pianist, just finishing his studies at Moscow’s Central Music School. At the same age, his father had been a promising young pianist with his sights set on a solo career. Indeed, Dmitri Shostakovich got as far as the finals of the 1927 Chopin Competition, but did not win a prize, and his disappointment on that occasion was a factor in his decision to prioritise composition instead. 263


By the 1950s, Shostakovich had been through a punishing series of confrontations with the Stalinist authorities, who were always exhorting Soviet composers to write uplifting, optimistic music. Shostakovich had been censured on a number of occasions for writing un-Soviet music, and such censure could be followed by terrifying reprisals. After Stalin died in 1953, things became somewhat less restrictive. Even so, four years later when Shostakovich wrote this piano concerto, he dismissed it in a letter to his pupil Edison Denisov as having ‘no redeeming artistic-ideological merits’, an enigmatic remark which might have been intended as ironic. At any rate, the second piano concerto has proved to be one of Shostakovich’s most popular works. It often seems like a pot-pourri of his own favourite composers – Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Stravinsky, perhaps even Poulenc. It begins with a jaunty orchestral opening and a mock-modest entry by the soloist, playing a sweet and innocent theme in octaves. The style is reminiscent of Rachmaninoff at the start of his third piano concerto. Making the pianist play in simple octaves is a feature of the whole concerto and may have been a reference to the kind of ‘youth music’ supplied in great quantities for the budding pianists of the Soviet Union’s music schools. A second theme, irresistibly reminding British listeners of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’, moves the action onwards and we start to hear the ‘wrong-note-on-purpose’ style that Prokofiev wielded so skilfully in his ballet music. A third theme, in simple rhythms and with the pianist still playing in octaves, has a delightful ‘bluesy’ touch which makes one wish Shostakovich had felt like writing in this style more often. In the development the jauntiness acquires a demonic edge as the pianist, suddenly revealing a technique equal to rushing chromatic scales and arpeggios, whips everyone up into a fierce military-style march. The reprise is led by the soloist, now playing the theme with a hectic Baroque-style counterpoint in the left hand, and pursuing this course even after the orchestra has joined in with a reprise of the opening themes. The slow movement has an unapologetic serious beauty most unusual for Shostakovich. The orchestra begins with a sarabande in C minor, Baroque in style but somehow Russian in spirit. When the piano enters, it is with an even nicer surprise, a soaring melody in a melting C major with not a hint of irony. It reminds 264


one of the slow movement of the Ravel G major piano concerto, one of the loveliest inspirations in classical music with its silkworm-slow melody over subtly shifting harmonies. In Shostakovich’s concerto too, this dreamy atmosphere is maintained throughout the movement, the piano eventually taking up the sarabande theme from the beginning and transferring its minor-key atmosphere to the soaring theme when it returns. The movement ends with quiet arpeggios from the piano, very much as Beethoven might have ended a slow movement – for example, in his fourth piano concerto. Shostakovich, like Beethoven, continues seamlessly into the last movement with repeated notes which form a bridge between both, and turn out to be material for the new theme. This new theme, with its repeated notes, bears a brief resemblance to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’ before settling into a lively F major. Once more the soloist plays in simple octaves, elaborating the opening theme for a minute or so until the orchestra bursts in with a new idea, a jolly theme in 7/8, the same time signature used by Prokofiev for the finale of his seventh piano sonata, but with none of Prokofiev’s sting. The soloist joins in, whisking the theme through some adventurous keys and then suddenly breaking into the familiar and dreaded pattern of a technical study known to all pianists at that time, from Hanon’s The VirtuosoPianist (a set which Saint-Saëns also parodies in ‘Pianistes’ in his Carnival of the Animals). This may be an in-joke between father and son; no doubt Shostakovich had often had his creative thoughts interrupted by the sound of Maxim’s piano practice at home. As the movement continues, Shostakovich resorts to a device he uses in the finale of his E minor piano trio, of starting with a low rumble in the bass and bringing the music gradually towards us as it gets higher, louder and more frightening. The music takes on a military edge, especially when a side drum enters. Suddenly it seems as if we are back on Shostakovich’s default territory, that of insistent rhythms beaten out obsessively. But in the nick of time the jazzy seventime passage suavely steps in to lighten the atmosphere. Near the end, the ‘Hanon’ technical study reappears, but this time the composer has a surprise for the young pianist, who must play in sixths instead of octaves, and has to zip through several chromatic keys before arriving back in F major for the merry conclusion. 265


OLIVIER MESSIAEN (1908–1992) 78. Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus It is well known that Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) was first performed in 1941 in the middle of the Second World War by four prisoners (the composer himself playing the piano) performing to an audience of hundreds of fellow captives in a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia. Less well known perhaps is that Messiaen’s masterpiece for solo piano, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Child Jesus), was written in Paris in 1944, the last year of its Nazi occupation. It was a miserable time; food and fuel were scarce, the electricity supply was so sporadic that many institutions could not remain open; the Resistance was active, strikes were called, and there was fighting in the streets. Messiaen had by then been released from the POW camp and was living in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris, where there were barricades in the streets. Ever since he was a prisoner, a name had been whispered among those hoping for rescue: ‘In our despair, a single name rose up, a name to which everyone clung, and it was that of General de Gaulle,’ Messiaen recalled. By 1944 there were rumours that Allied help was not far away. In August it arrived, and Paris was liberated on 25 August, General de Gaulle leading the victory parade from the Arc de Triomphe to the Cathedral of Notre Dame the next day. During most of this tumultuous year, Messaien was writing his extraordinary Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, in a way an escape from what was going on around him, and in another way perhaps a meditation on it, for Jesus was born when Bethlehem was under Roman occupation. ‘Regards’ has been translated in various ways: ‘Looks’, ‘Meditations’, ‘Adorations’, even just ‘Regards’ although the word has a slightly different ring to it in English. Like all Messiaen’s music, the work was inspired by his deep Catholic faith and his fascination with theology. Since the age of twenty-two, he had been the organist at the Église de la Sainte Trinité in Paris, a post he held until his death in 1992. He was famous for his tremendous improvisations on the church organ, and on a Sunday morning many people went to Mass in that particular church partly to hear Messiaen ‘play out’ the congregation at the end of the service with thundering broadsides on the 266


organ. Those who heard him said that his improvisations were even more impressive than his compositions – a remark also made about both Beethoven and Chopin. Messiaen’s musical language was rich and complicated. Early in his life he was influenced by a description of Hindu music from India, explaining the principles of ‘additive rhythm’, the way that regular patterns are extended by adding extra beats and half-beats, giving the listener a sense that the points of rest in the musical line are being pushed further into the distance. Messiaen developed this technique in his own music, using it to suspend our sense of the bar line and produce a feeling of organic flow. He gathered many other influences into his language – church bells, serialism, mathematics, gamelan music from Indonesia, Bach, Japanese music, Wagner, Mussorgsky, even jazz, which adds a joyful and sometimes a surprisingly sensual quality to the contemplation. Then there is birdsong. Lots of composers have included birdsong in their music, but Messiaen was a serious ornithologist and believed that birds were ‘the earth’s first musicians’ and ‘the greatest musicians on the planet’. He spent years collecting and transcribing birdsong, a lot of which found its way into his music, including the Vingt Regards. A further influence on his language is synaesthesia. Messiaen ‘saw’ colours when he heard music, and many of his commentaries on his own music refer to its vivid and detailed colours: indeed, he once said that some of his modes ‘are neither melodic nor harmonic – they are colours’. Not everyone sees colours when they hear music, so this quality of his music is difficult to share, as Messiaen recognised when he said ‘I don’t ask performers to see the same colours as I do myself . . . but to see colours, each in his own way.’ Some of the ways the child Jesus is ‘regarded’ in these pieces are familiar – we have the gaze of the Father, of the Virgin, the angels, the prophets, the Star of Bethlehem. But we have also the gaze of silence, of the heights, the gaze of ‘the terrible unction’, and even ‘the gaze of the Son upon the Son’. The very beautiful penultimate piece (which could almost be a Debussy prelude) is entitled ‘I sleep, but my heart keeps watch’, and the last one is ‘The gaze of the church of love’. Messiaen added a line of explanation: ‘Here are bells, glory and the kiss of Love . . . All the passion of our arms around the Invisible One.’ 267


These visions are expressed in a language which in a way seems rooted in the rich and lush vocabulary of the Romantics – the style of piano writing is often surprisingly like that of Liszt – while also clearly seeking to transcend the limitations of Western musical language and create a sense of endless space, grandeur and ecstasy. Although sudden revelations and severe contrasts are a feature of Messiaen’s style, there are a few constantly recurring ‘atmospheres’: rapt, prayerful contemplation; overwhelming grandeur expressed in battering chords; ecstatic outpourings of adoration for God. Four ‘Themes’ or motifs are woven through the twenty pieces: the Theme of God, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, the Theme of Chords, and the Theme of Love, which seem to function rather like Wagnerian leitmotifs. The intensity of Messiaen’s religious ecstasy as expressed in this music is a balm to some, a remote world to others. Messiaen was fortunate in having Yvonne Loriod as the very fine pianist who made it her mission to introduce his piano music to the world. She was first his composition pupil and later his second wife and muse. Her understanding of composition, her piano technique and her devotion to Messiaen’s ideals gave him the freedom to write piano music as complex and challenging as his faith demanded. The whole Vingt Regards cycle takes almost two hours to perform and demands extraordinary stamina and concentration. Individual pieces are sometimes played in recitals, particularly no. 15, ‘Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus’, a twelveminute rhapsody with an intoxicating mix of high Romantic music, jazz, birdsong, Wagner’s Tristan, and spiritual absorption expressed in luscious, closely packed chords whose inner notes slowly revolve, like an icon ‘regarded’ from different facets.

JOHN CAGE (1912–1992) 79. Sonatas and Interludes It is tempting to represent the pioneering American composer John Cage with a blank page symbolising his most famous piece of piano music, 4ˇ33ˇˇ, in which he tells the pianist simply to sit at the piano and play nothing for four minutes and 268


thirty-three seconds. Cage dropped this silent bombshell on the musical world in 1952. The idea was that for a precise amount of time, the audience would devote their attention not to the composer, the piece or the pianist but to ‘the music of what happens’: in the quietness, they would find themselves hearing and savouring all kinds of ambient noises. However, Cage’s 4ˇ33ˇˇ has had a lot of attention, and although it is an interesting ‘performance art’ concept, it isn’t really piano music. Cage is often thought of as a kind of ‘hippy’ composer of the 1950s, part of the blissed-out generation seduced by Zen, Kerouac, Indian philosophy, James Joyce, the Chinese I Ching or ‘Book of Changes’, altered states of mind and macrobiotic cooking. Part of Cage’s hippy reputation arose from his love of mushrooms, and who could not love a composer who said that ‘I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to mushrooms’? In fact, he was a serious student of the mushroom and once taught a course in New York about mushroom identification. Even more pleasingly, on a visit to fellow composer Luciano Berio in Italy in the 1950s, Cage was a competitor on a TV quiz show where he chose ‘mushrooms’ as his specialist subject and won the top prize of 5 million lire ($10,000) by correctly naming the twenty-four varieties of the white-spored Agaricus. Moreover, he believed that if one paid proper attention when foraging, one might hear the spores of the mushroom (infinitely varied in shape, apparently) dropping to the forest floor ‘like gamelan music’. But in his earlier years Cage was a devoted student of none other than Arnold Schoenberg, studying (European) compositional methods for two years and looking up to him. Schoenberg once said that ‘Music is not something we [composers] experience, but rather an idea we can have, the expression of which can never be perfect, though we ought – for artistic and moral reasons – to bring it as close to perfection as possible.’ In the end, this austere attitude drove Cage to explore other avenues. Rather than seeking to perfect every aspect of a composition, he embraced the idea that music could be open to chance. He began to use the Chinese I Ching, an ancient book of divination, to determine ingredients of his compositions. This appealed to Cage because he felt he was bypassing the inevitably limited will of the composer. ‘I love the activity of sound,’ he said. ‘I don’t need sound to talk to me.’ 269


After he left Schoenberg but before he arrived at his ‘chance music’, Cage went through a phase of being interested in Indian philosophy. This led to his writing the hour-long set of twenty short piano pieces regarded as his most important work for the piano, Sonatas and Interludes (1946–8). There are sixteen short ‘sonatas’ – sonata meaning simply ‘a piece that sounds’ – and four interludes. The underlying inspiration was ‘rasa’, an Indian concept of aesthetic flavour or ‘essence’ that is found in works of art. It is a complex concept, but on a simple level there are four ‘white’ rasa (humour, wonder, heroism, erotic love) and four ‘black’ (anger, fear, disgust, sorrow). All of these are believed to tend towards a ninth rasa, tranquillity. To evoke the exotic sound-world he imagined, Cage used a ‘prepared piano’, a term he coined. In this case, he prepared forty-five notes by having screws, nuts, bolts, pieces of plastic (such as rawlplugs) and rubber inserted between the strings or placed at precisely specified points along the string. When the pianist played these notes, strange tinkling, bell-like sounds and clangs would alternate with dull thuds, buzzes, clonks and notes of disorienting tunelessness. The pitches of the notes were altered by the added materials, so that what the pianist sees on the score is not the same as what comes out when they play the specified notes. Some notes were heavily prepared, some lightly, and others not at all, so that ordinary piano notes are part of the mix. To determine the length of musical units, large and small, Cage used a complicated system of numbers and fractions. He never said which of the pieces corresponded to which Indian rasa, but he did say that bell-like sounds generally meant Europe, whereas drums indicated the East. In fact, the gong-like sonority of the prepared notes makes many of the pieces sound oriental. Some of the sonatas, for example number 2, are clearly ‘gamelan music’ of the kind we might hear mushrooms produce if only our ears were attuned to them. Others are more European, for example Sonata 7, a bit like a tiny Bach Invention played by out-of-tune gongs, or Sonata 12, like a bit of distorted Romantic piano music. Sonatas 14 and 15 are a pair of quiet hypnotic pieces in simple running quavers, inspired by the wire geometric sculptures of American sculptor Richard Lippold. Sonata 16, which Cage said was ‘clearly European’, is a slow and hesitant piece which could almost be a late Brahms intermezzo were it not couched in expressionless metallic sonorities. 270


It’s interesting to note that in discussing his American composition students, Schoenberg later said of Cage that ‘he wasn’t a composer . . . but an inventor – of genius.’

GYÖRGY LIGETI (1923–2006) 80. Musica Ricercata Several composers have followed in Debussy’s footsteps in exploring the possibilities of the piano in sets of short pieces. But none has done so more vividly than the Hungarian György Ligeti, who combines this Debussyan influence with the spirit of Bartók. Towards the end of his career, Ligeti wrote eighteen Études, virtuoso studies in the tradition of Chopin and Liszt, which contain some of the most ingenious piano music of the late twentieth century. His most approachable piano work, however, is probably his earlier Musica Ricercata. Composed in secret between 1951 and 1953 at a time of Soviet repression in Hungary, it represents an act of defiance, but also an act of creativity, full of playful imagination. Ligeti was a Hungarian Jew who lost many members of his family in concentration camps during the Second World War. After the war he experienced the harsh regime of Communist Hungary. Modern music was banned; even the music of Bartók disappeared from concert programmes and the airwaves along with Debussy and Stravinsky. In 1950, Ligeti became a teacher of harmony and counterpoint at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, but his teaching material was closely monitored; in 1952 he got into trouble for analysing Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with his students. Western European radio stations broadcasting new music were jammed by the Hungarian authorities, but Ligeti found that the broadcasts retained enough higher frequencies to give him an idea of the music. In addition, he was able to obtain (illegally) a copy of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus (1947) in which the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn describes the system of twelve-note music. Motivated by this, Ligeti began to work in secret on new methods. Musica Ricercata means ‘researched music’ and refers to a) the Renaissance and Baroque ‘ricercare’, a contrapuntal technique which shares some features 271


with the fugue, and b) Ligeti’s efforts to construct a new style from first principles. One of his principles here was to restrict the number of pitches he could use in each piece. The first piece uses only two pitches, A and D; the second piece uses three pitches, the third uses four, and so on up to the eleventh and final piece which uses all twelve notes of the octave. Within these restrictions, Ligeti creates a huge variety of moods and styles. Many avant-garde composers in the 1950s and 1960s were inventive, but Ligeti is not just inventive but playful and humorous. One can hear the influence of Bartók, whose research into folk music had inspired Ligeti to do some folk-music collecting of his own; the spirit of improvisation is never far away. Unlike some of the contemporary composers whose methods he tried to study in secret, Ligeti did not seek to avoid melody. In Musica Ricercata he often avoids jagged leaps between intervals, preferring stepwise movement or small intervals which make his lines more easily memorable. The first piece confines itself mostly to the note A, which appears in various registers in a controlled acceleration and crescendo whose sparing use of syncopation hints at jazz. The humour of cross-rhythms becomes more insistent, even cruel. Both hands pound out a ‘ferocious’ coda with octaves in the high treble and low bass before a sudden silence is broken by the unexpected use of a loud D (a moment which often makes the audience laugh). No. 2 (used in Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut) is much more solemn. It begins with two pitches, E♯ and F♯. A hint of mournful folk song colours the stately theme, which appears in loud and soft versions. In the middle of the piece an important new note, G, appears in the treble. Stabbing reiterations of this G become increasingly frenzied, accompanied by the instruction ‘with all one’s strength’ as well as ‘very heavy’ and ‘threatening’. Ligeti later confessed he had conceived of this passage being ‘like a knife in Stalin’s heart’. (A cautionary note: in an attempt to convey this violent image in performance, I once injured a finger by over-zealous ‘stabbing’.) No. 3 (using the notes C, E, E♭ and G) is a cheerful, almost cabaret-like piece in which C major and C minor battle good-naturedly with one another in cheeky rhythm, juxtaposing sudden louds and softs. No. 4 (A, B♭, F♯, G and G♯) is a barrel-organ waltz which Ligeti directs to be played with freely chosen periods of 272


speeding up and slowing down, imitating the erratic turning of the handle by the organist. These accentuate the asymmetrical lines of the waltz, which sometimes distort the triple-time rhythm with duple-time bars. No. 5 (A♭, B, C♯, D, F, G) brings Bartók’s music to mind with its lamenting melodic lines. As the piece goes on, the two hands converge, chasing one another in canon as bells toll in the deep bass and then in the high treble. No. 6 (A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, G) exhibits another radical change of mood, an outburst of chattering with the two hands exchanging rhythmic motifs and melodic fragments in jovial style. No. 7 (using A♭, A, B♭, C, D, E♭, F, G) is a fascinating piece built on a quiet, rapid seven-note figure repeated over and over throughout the piece in the bass by the left hand. Ligeti directs that it should be played ‘evenly, without any accent and independently of the right hand’s rhythm’. This is easier said than done as the right hand then enters with a slow, sad melody whose long phrases have to be gently sustained while the left hand patters along underneath with its obliviously repeating seven-note pattern. During several ‘verses’ the melody gradually rises into the high treble and disappears, leaving only the rapid pattering, which the left hand unexpectedly passes to the right hand for the conclusion. No. 8 (A, B, C, C♯, D, E, F♯, G, G♯) is a short and energetic dance, again reminiscent of Bartók, in an irregular metre made more irregular by jump cuts which snip off the end of certain phrases, making it feel as though the needle has jumped in the groove of an old gramophone record. Although officially in 7/8 time, that is, seven quavers to the bar, the dance seems like one of those Hungarian folk songs collected by Bartók where the local custom is to elongate certain beats without actually intending to distort the basic pulse. No. 9, ‘Bela Bartók in memoriam’ (A, A♯, B, C, C♯, D, D♯, F, F♯, G♯), begins by evoking Bartók’s style of night music. Bells toll in the deep bass, while in the right hand a theme built from rising and falling intervals of a third are stated with the characteristic short-long rhythm derived from Hungarian speech. This shortlong rhythm quickly dominates the piece, the short portion of each two-note motif becoming even shorter and eventually rising in pitch with the instruction ‘as if panicking’. This is followed by a sad final section in which low trills rumble in inner parts as the main theme recovers its composure. 273


No. 10 (A, A♯, B, C♯, D, D♯, E, F, G♭, G, G♯) is a spiky scherzo with a demonic humour. Ligeti makes the two hands play in different keys and duet with one another at uncomfortably close range. The metre shifts constantly between three and two; smooth phrases are contrasted with punching chords. As in previous pieces the music rises frantically into the high treble; stabbing motions are marked ‘insistent, spiteful’ and the pianist is asked to repeat them over and over ‘as if mad’. After a shocked pause, the piece ends with a ‘calm’ descending phrase whose calm feels ironic. Today this little piece seems humorous, theatrical, but it was once banned in Hungary for being ‘dangerous’. No. 11, ‘Homage to Girolamo Frescobaldi’ (A, A♯, B, C, C♯, D, D♯, E, F, G♭, G, G♯), is a tribute to the Baroque composer credited with developing the ‘ricercare’, a cousin of the fugue. Ligeti’s theme is a twelve-note row, using all the notes of the chromatic scale. His counter-theme, a steadily descending chromatic line, appears immediately in the bass as the next voice takes over the ricercare theme. As more voices enter, the piece gathers intensity and density; at one point Ligeti has to write on four staves to accommodate all the overlapping lines. In the second half of the piece the main theme develops in different rhythmic directions; it appears twice as fast in one part while in another it suddenly becomes twice as slow, framing a middle voice which continues at the original pace. These ingredients pile up to produce a grand climax, after which the theme breaks up into fragments which overlap and fan out to the extremes of the keyboard. Finally, the theme is whispered, hesitantly, in the high treble while the counter-theme descends in the low bass, both hands coming to rest on the note A, where the whole cycle began.

PIERRE BOULEZ (1925–2016) 81. Douze Notations Pierre Boulez was one of the most influential figures in French music during the twentieth century; as a composer, conductor, polemicist and founder of experimental music institutions he raised the profile of contemporary music enormously 274


and influenced the thinking of many young composers. I was a young violinist in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain when Boulez came to conduct us in a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Debussy’s La Mer. He spoke to the orchestra about his belief that we did not need to ‘interpret’ the music or develop an emotional attachment to it; all we needed to do was to follow the composer’s instructions meticulously and if we succeeded, the right result would emerge. For most of us this was new and surprising. And in this particular music, the results seemed to bear him out. His careful balancing and layering of ‘voices’ in the orchestra, making sure that at any given moment the right lines were in the foreground, was impressive. His sharp hearing, too, made us respect his musicianship. He might complain that a certain A flat ‘was more like a G sharp’, and so on. On the piano, with its fixed tuning, these are just two ways of specifying the same note, but on many instruments it is possible to tweak the tuning to reflect the ‘direction of travel’. At that time, I had learned the violin to a moderate standard, but the art of adjusting the pitch to the harmonic or melodic context was a closed book to me until Boulez mentioned it. Maybe I hadn’t been paying attention, but I don’t remember my violin teachers mentioning it (an indication that technique was studied too much in isolation). Boulez was a brilliant student who started to train as a mathematician but changed to music after a year. He worked hard to absorb information from many sources. In 1945, at the age of twenty, he was a composition pupil of Olivier Messiaen who taught him his own principles of rhythmic organisation, made him study classic works by composers of other eras, and introduced him to Indonesian gamelan music (which had such an influence on French composers at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century). At around the same time, Boulez encountered a very different approach to composition when he heard a performance of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, op. 26, and his Piano Pieces, op. 23, examples of twelve-note music. This led to his studying the twelve-note technique of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) with René Leibowitz alongside his other studies. In addition, he pursued the interest in ethnomusicology which Messiaen had awakened in him, regularly visiting certain Paris museums to study their recordings of Asian and African music. 275


Boulez’s 1945 set of piano pieces, Douze Notations (Twelve Notations), written at this time, was a synthesis of these ingredients and amounts to a portrait of a young composer at a fertile moment. Inspired by the powerful brevity of Anton Webern’s twelve-note music, Boulez set out to write twelve short pieces of twelve bars each, using the same twelve-note ‘row’ in every piece. He used the note-row quite freely, not only horizontally or vertically but in clusters, segments, glissandos and repeated notes. Each piece has a distinctive character within which the pianist must constantly change touch and dynamics, deploying very varied techniques from smooth legato lines to sudden jabbing fortes, clusters produced with the flat palm of the hand, violent glissandos. There is a hint of the angry virtuosity which characterised later pieces such as his second piano sonata. The musical gestures or phrases in the Notations are mostly short, often strongly contrasted with one another, and nearly every bar has a different length, so that the listener’s expectations are kept disrupted. Rarely does one have the luxury of sitting back and listening to a long phrase unfold; both performer and listener have a sense of having to concentrate intensely on the present moment. Later in the twentieth century there was a cult of music which enabled one to ‘be in the present moment’, like a form of mindfulness. Boulez’s music also demands that one focus on exactly what is happening at every moment, but its methods are severe. Some of the pieces (e.g. Nos. 1 and 5) are delicate and questioning, akin to Webern, while others are aggressive (e.g. No. 2). Some (e.g. Nos. 2 and 4) show the influence of Messiaen with their unpredictable added beats and half-beats and their suggestion of slightly manic birdsong. The influence of Debussy, particularly of late works such as his sonatas for violin and piano, and cello and piano, can be heard in No. 1. The sixth piece applies the venerable art of canon to ferocious jagged lines where the left hand chases the right or varies its patterns at a distance of two semiquavers. In the seventh piece, reminiscent of Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes, a wistful line is constantly interrupted by strident ‘calls’ expressed in a snapping tritone figure (C sharp to G in this case). Rapid repetitive jangling rhythms reminiscent of African metallophones power their way through number 8. The ninth piece is marked ‘distant and calm’, but the way it stirs around in the low bass register seems more sinister than calm. 276


No. 10, ‘mechanical and dry’, feels like an angry argument between the hands. Grace notes fan out across the keyboard in number 11, decorating lyrical notes and chords. The final piece, harsh and imposing, ends with the command to ‘let it resonate for a long time’. Evidently it did resonate for a long time with Boulez, for over the next decades, and in fact until his old age, he returned again and again to these Notations, orchestrating some of them and using them as springboards for other compositions: ‘The ideas were for me full of possibilities I had entirely overlooked in 1945.’ These possibilities included the idea of ‘total serialisation’ in which series of pitches, durations, dynamics, tone colours and other elements could be systematically organised. Boulez’s piano music has remained a specialist field despite the advocacy of some gifted performers. Many ordinary music-lovers still find it impenetrable. For the beginner it is perhaps useful to approach the Notations as tiny pieces of theatre, telling dramatic stories in super-condensed form.

LUCIANO BERIO (1925–2003) 82. Wasserklavier Luciano Berio’s most imposing piano music is probably his 1965 Sequenza IV for solo piano, a work influenced by Stockhausen. It is a restless exploration of the known and unknown sonorities of the piano including effects that can be achieved with the use of its pedals. Clusters, fleeting lines, jagged gestures and violently opposed louds and softs are its building blocks, and its style is theatrical. Berio was an inspiring composition teacher whose perceptive and openminded approach helped many younger composers to find their own style, even if it was miles away from his. Despite being a devoted modernist, Berio retained affection for many of the older composers whose works had influenced him, and sometimes allusions to their work are found in his. At the same time as writing his Sequenza in 1965, he also wrote the much more approachable Wasserklavier (Water Piano). It was later included in Six Encores collected from various decades of Berio’s piano compositions. 277


Wasserklavier is a quiet and thoughtful piece lasting just a couple of minutes. Berio directs the pianist to play with the ‘una corda’ (soft) pedal down throughout, and to play ‘ppp’ (very, very quietly) and very smoothly. At the head of the piece he writes ‘teneramente e lontano’ (tenderly and distantly). Clearly this comes from a very different part of his imagination compared with Sequenza IV. Why Wasserklavier, a German title although the composer was Italian? Perhaps it is a reference to the nickname of Beethoven’s famous piano sonata in B flat, op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ (hammer-piano, the German term Beethoven in his later years took to using in preference to the Italian ‘Pianoforte’). But Wasserklavier implies a more liquid type of sonority. From the very start there are hints of Brahms and Schubert not far below the surface. First of all, the key is F minor, the key of Schubert’s Impromptu, D935 no. 1, one of his finest late piano pieces. It isn’t directly quoted, but the allusions come in the rising octave C to C in the first bar, echoing the C-C octave spread with which Schubert begins his impromptu. Also, Berio’s first chord in the left hand is the same as Schubert’s – an F minor chord spread over the interval of a tenth (an octave and two notes). Furthermore, the very last chord in the left hand of the Berio is the same as Schubert’s. Small things, but used like tiny poetic clues. At the same time, we might feel we are hearing an allusion to Brahms’s Intermezzo in B flat minor, op. 117 no. 2, likewise one of his finest late piano pieces. At the beginning of the intermezzo, Brahms makes great play with pairs of drooping (and occasionally rising) melodic notes, a characteristic habit. Again these are not directly quoted, but in the Berio those notes are threaded through different layers of the piano writing: for example, in the very first bar of the Berio we hear the D flat-C we know from the opening of the Brahms, while in the second bar the next two Brahmsian pairs (B flat-C and C-F) are placed in various parts of the chords. There are other Brahmsian allusions – for example, Brahms loved threeagainst-two rhythms, often using triplet movement in a piece in duple time to create a kind of gentle sway. Here Berio echoes this, though he more often does it the other way round, by using a duple movement in a piece in 6/8 time, which has two groups of three quavers in each bar. For both composers this three-against278


two seems to allude to a world of ambiguity, a twilight region in which the subconscious is happy. There are hints of other Brahms Intermezzi too, for example, op. 117 no. 3 with its strange central episode, where the intervals are widely spaced and the pianist’s hands seem to be moving hesitantly about in the dark, the bass notes just touched in but never more. Naturally these allusions are detectable more by the person who has time to look at the music under a microscope than by the casual listener, but they seem to show the nostalgia Berio must have had for a world of piano music which – after the advent of twelve-note music, electronic music and the dogmas of Stockhausen, Boulez and their colleagues – may have felt as if it were denied him. Wasserklavier was originally written for two pianos, and its origin seems to have left some imprint on the version for solo piano in which it is most often performed, for there are lots of very widely spaced chords. Some of them are marked with squiggly vertical lines, a sign that the pianist should ‘roll’ the chords, but even some chords not marked with squiggly lines are impossible for anyone without a big hand to play without rolling them. Actually, the rolling seems quite suitable for a piece about water. Piano music is full of water pieces, many of them from the French Impressionist era (e.g. Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau or Debussy’s Reflets dans l’Eau) but also going back to Liszt’s Les Jeux d’Eau à la Villa d’Este, Chopin’s Barcarolle (inspired by the image of a boat on the water), Mendelssohn’s Venetian boat-songs and Schubert’s many songs about brooks and water. Whether any of them was at the back of Berio’s mind we cannot know, and perhaps he had his own reasons for meditating on water, but there is a strong sense of pianistic nostalgia in his Wasserklavier, a soft piece in the midst of much hard music.

GYÖRGY KURTÁG (b. 1926) 83. Játékok, selected pieces The nine volumes (so far) of György Kurtág’s Játékok (Games) represent a huge ongoing project in the work of this insightful Hungarian musician. Kurtág has been an important influence not only on young composers but also on musicians 279


whom he has coached, particularly in chamber music, in settings such as the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove, England. He himself is very active as a performer, and for many years he played piano duets with his wife Márta, who died in 2019; their performances of selected pieces from Játékok were treasured around the world. Kurtág’s early career as a composer was halting, but in 1973 a request from Budapest piano teacher Marianne Teöke for a set of short pedagogical pieces seemed to liberate his imagination. (There was, of course, a splendid precedent in his compatriot Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, several volumes of pedagogical piano pieces written from 1926 to 1939.) In the foreword to Játékok, Kurtág said he was inspired by ‘children playing spontaneously, children for whom the piano still means a toy. They experiment with it, caress it, attack it and run their fingers over it.’ He goes on: ‘Pleasure in playing, the joy of movement – daring and if need be fast movement over the entire keyboard right from the first lessons instead of the clumsy groping for keys and the counting of rhythms – all these rather vague ideas lay at the outset of the creation of this collection.’ It ‘does not provide a tutor’, then, but it does something equally valuable: it aims to make young people feel at home on the piano, and it promotes the spirit of ‘play’. Taking his cue from these young ‘players’ (in two senses), he created extensions to the usual vocabulary of music notation. He devised symbols to indicate that something should be played with the flat of the hand, with the edge of the palm, with the elbow, with a ‘rotating’ palm, with a fist, with the fingers held ‘like drumsticks’. He indicates ‘clusters’ of notes on white keys, black keys, clusters put down so gently that nothing sounded. Durations are ‘very long’, ‘long’, ‘short’, ‘very short’, but not further defined. He shows how to play overtones by holding down a note silently while playing another note that would make the silent note resonate in sympathy. Another symbol shows how to lean on the keys with one forearm pressing down lots of black keys while the other depresses lots of white keys. Notes are sometimes given little crosses instead of the usual round heads to show that the pitch is ‘approximate’: the player can choose. Glissandos are important in Kurtág’s style and he suggests that they should be mastered first ‘silently over the entire keyboard’ and then practised while wearing gloves. 280


Right from the start, Kurtág paid tribute to his favourite composers: Bach above all (in concerts he often intersperses his own pieces with Bach chorales), but lots of others – Scarlatti, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Kodály, Shostakovich, Stravinsky. Then he started dedicating pieces to friends and colleagues, fellow composers and pianists. Later still his pieces took on the character of diary entries and ‘personal messages’, their significance not explained. The titles are inviting: ‘Wrong notes allowed’, ‘Stubborn Knots’, ‘Quiet Talk with the Devil’, ‘Obstinate A flat’, ‘Play with Infinity’, ‘Staggering’, ‘Beating’. Others are enigmatic: ‘The mind is a free wild animal’, ‘Love in the heart, bitter pain’, ‘Phone numbers of our loved ones’, ‘Flowers We Are . . .’ Most of the pieces in the ‘Homage to . . .’ series are not elucidated, so we are left to imagine what characteristics these friends represented. Kurtág’s comments about his music often suggest that there is a weighty intellectual hinterland to these short pieces, some of them no more than a few seconds long. For example, a 1998 addition to the collection is called ‘Merran’s Dream – (Caliban detecting-rebuilding Mirranda’s dream)’ [sic]. This suggests a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but the little piece itself is quite demure and keeps its secrets to itself. Some of the pieces seem too fleeting or fragile to carry the weight of their titles. I know from my own experiences of Kurtág’s coaching that when in teaching mode he is ultra-demanding, rarely satisfied, always seeking a further level of engagement or insight for the sake of the music. Hours can be spent on perfecting the touch, tone and spirit of a single bar or phrase, and he can be critical of those whose patience runs out before the task is fulfilled to his standards. This can create friction with the ideal of a musician being spontaneous and free, playing ‘playfully’. One often notices an intense concentration on the faces of performers playing Kurtág’s own music, and wonders whether this is what he wants, or whether by asking more and more of them he hopes to push them to something ‘beyond games and scripts’. Perhaps there is a realm where, after musicians have exerted themselves to the utmost to fulfil the composer’s wishes, they discover that it is possible to do so ‘freely’. At any rate, Kurtág’s ability to hear and demand complex ingredients in single notes or chords can be applied to 281


the pieces of Játékok too. They are brief, often laconic, but the qualities of their individual sounds and silences are meant to be explored with no less dedication. Most of the pieces are for two hands, but some are for three (maybe a student playing one line while a teacher plays two) and volumes IV and VIII are for four hands at one piano, or for two pianos. Many of the pieces have been arranged for other instruments including (appropriately) toy piano. Kurtág and his wife Márta liked to perform duets from Játékok on an upright piano with a strip of felt between hammers and strings to muffle the tone (the Viennese piano of Schubert’s day had a more sophisticated version of the same thing). I attended a concert in London’s Wigmore Hall where the Kurtágs used this effect throughout, playing an upright piano and sitting with their backs to the audience. As the sound was very quiet, it was amplified and relayed via loudspeakers so that those of us at the back of the hall could hear it, a contradictory effect which seemed curiously apt. Among over four hundred pieces it is hard to pick out favourites, but here are some suggestions: ‘Homage to Tchaikovsky’, a humorous parody of the opening of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto; ‘Play with Overtones’, a delicate exploration of how the strings of the piano talk to one another; ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, a feast of glissandos softly moving around the keyboard; ‘Play with Infinity’, in which a gentle chromatic scale descends the whole keyboard against a counterpoint of spiky comments; ‘Scherzo’, a witty collage of effects such as pawing the keys, repeated notes and glissandos. Some of his ‘homages’ to older composers are poetic: ‘Homage to Schubert’ captures in just a few bars the strange happysadness of Schubert’s harmonies, and ‘Homage to Beethoven’, equally brief, catches a certain mood of Beethoven’s, peaceful yet searching. ‘In Memoriam Sebők György’ is a mournful exploration of deep piano tone. Some of the pieces arranged for toy piano (plus glockenspiel) are weirdly evocative: the several variants of ‘Flowers we are, frail flowers . . .’ have their fragile poetry almost heightened by the metallic tinkling of a tiny toy piano played by an apparently oversized pianist. In ‘Prelude and Chorale’, an abrasive prelude introduces a mysterious chorale whose top line circles round a single note while underneath it the ground shifts and drops away. 282


¯ RU TAKEMITSU (1930–1996) TO 84. Rain Tree Sketch II To¯ru Takemitsu was, as conductor Seiji Ozawa observed in his foreword to Takemitsu’s essays Confronting Silence, ‘the first Japanese composer to write for a world audience and achieve international recognition’. Takemitsu was born in Tokyo, moved with his parents to China for the first eight years of his life, and then returned to Japan where at the age of fourteen he was conscripted into military service, an experience he described as ‘extremely bitter’. During the American post-war occupation of Japan, he encountered Western music through hearing it played on US Armed Forces radio. He loved what he heard, particularly the contemporary music. He later admitted that his disillusionment at that time with his own culture gave extra impetus to his engagement with the music of the West. This situation was gradually brought into balance by his discovery of the seventeenth-century Japanese art of Bunraku puppet theatre and the traditional music which accompanied it. His emotional response to Bunraku made Takemitsu recognise that he had deep roots in Japanese culture, and from then on he sought to blend elements from both cultures in his music. As a composer he was largely self-taught (‘the radio was my first teacher’), though over the years he assiduously sought out contact with composers he admired in order to learn from them. Takemitsu had a searching intellect which spurred him to explore all kinds of different arts; his friends reported that he could talk with equal knowledge and passion about films, nature, art (particularly surrealism), gardens and Japanese philosophy as well as music. Takemitsu’s interest in the piano began when, as a teenager, he heard piano music on the radio and took to walking around Tokyo, listening for the sound of a piano being played in a house, upon which he would knock on the door and ask if he could try the piano for a few minutes: ‘I was rarely refused!’ His piano works are a small but select part of his output. Takemitsu’s love for the music of Debussy and Messiaen, who both wrote so beautifully for the piano, had a deep influence on his piano writing. Although most listeners will feel that he inhabits the same French sound-world, he imbues it with a distinctly Japanese sensibility. Takemitsu 283


often wrote about his respect for the Japanese concept of ‘Ma’, sometimes translated as ‘space’ or ‘silence’ or ‘emptiness’ but not in a negative sense – more poetically, ‘Ma’ means ‘the time and space that life needs to grow’. In Takemitsu’s music this translates into carefully situated pauses and silences which make one think of the space around the artistically placed rocks in a Japanese garden. ‘I want to give sounds the freedom to breathe,’ he wrote. In 1982 he wrote his piano piece Rain Tree Sketch, following it up ten years later with Rain Tree Sketch II, his last work for piano, dedicated to the memory of Olivier Messiaen. Both works were inspired by the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s 1982 collection of short stories, Women Listening to the Rain Tree. The rain tree is an ancient tree whose leaves store up water during rain, gradually releasing droplets from its thousands of leaves after the rain has stopped (which could be construed as an analogy for an artist’s work). Rain Tree Sketch II is in three sections; the first and third are more rhythmical sections marked ‘Celestially light’, and the central section is a melodic episode marked ‘Joyful’. Both descriptions clearly refer to those qualities in Messiaen’s music. In keeping with the idea of lightness, the opening section is based in the treble region of the keyboard. Delicate crystals of chords dance in a gentle triple time, with little phrases that are quietly echoed after ‘breathing spaces’. The serene tinkling of the chords evokes not only Debussy and Messiaen but also the Indonesian gamelan orchestra whose sonority they loved. Soon we hear in the low bass the first of the oriental-sounding ‘gong’ notes, and we also hear a short rising motif made up of two three-note arpeggios in each hand. As the piece goes on, this motif becomes important; sometimes the three notes in each hand are heard together, sometimes dislocated from one another. The middle section, ‘Joyful’, recalls Messiaen’s style more precisely. A two-bar melody in the right hand is followed at a quaver’s distance by the left, a gentle canon which poetically suggests the idea of one person following another. Still the low gong note sounds in the bass. After a ringing pause, the opening ‘Celestially light’ section returns in abbreviated form, and a gong note marks the end. On hearing of Messiaen’s death in 1992, Takemitsu said that ‘Truly, he was my spiritual mentor.’ Rain Tree Sketch II is a thoughtful tribute to Messiaen, blending Western and Eastern aesthetics. 284


SOFIA GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931) 85. Chaconne Sofia Gubaidulina is a composer of Tatar-Russian heritage (she was born in Chistopol in the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, now known as Tatarstan). In the 1930s her family suffered deprivation due to policies (such as collectivisation) pursued by the Stalinist authorities. Despite the suppression of religious activity, the young Sofia developed a spiritual outlook and an awareness of realms beyond the visible and logical. By the age of ten she was determined to become a composer, and later said that all her work was driven by her religious sensibility. Her studies took her to Moscow, where her exploration of exotic scales and other experiments got her into trouble with the Soviet authorities, but on graduation she received ironic encouragement from Dmitri Shostakovich (himself a victim of Stalinist criticism) who told her, ‘Don’t be afraid to be yourself. My wish for you is that you continue on your incorrect path.’ She persevered and very gradually, despite all sorts of difficulties, became one of the most highly regarded contemporary Russian composers and the recipient of many awards. She later got involved in electronic music, and started a music group, Astreya, which explored the folk music and instruments of her native region and beyond. She has a particular love of percussion instruments, believing that their sound is ‘at the border between the conscious and the subconscious’. Although she later became well known for electronic music and works for various ensembles, Gubaidulina’s early work focused on the piano, partly because she herself was an accomplished pianist. Her piano pieces were amongst the first works to make her name outside of Russia. The first of them was her Chaconne of 1962. The Chaconne is a Baroque form, synonymous with the Passacaglia, in which a sequence of harmonies, often laid out in the bass, is used as a template for continuous variation and decoration. One of the most famous examples is the last movement of J.S. Bach’s Partita for solo violin in D minor, a huge structure beginning with a stately sarabande which is gradually elaborated into the grandest of climaxes. Bach’s chaconne has inspired many composers including, in recent 285


times, Bartók, John Adams, Britten, Henze and Philip Glass as well as Gubaidulina. Her choice of chaconne for her first major piano piece was surely a homage not only to Bach himself, but also to his religious faith. Gubaidulina has emulated Bach in using religious iconography and number symbolism in her music, and has spoken about her attempts to trace the shape of the Cross in music by juxtaposing vertical (chordal) and horizontal (melodic) elements. Gubaidulina’s style of writing at the time of her Chaconne shows the influence of Shostakovich and Prokofiev (particularly when in sardonic mode) as well as that of Webern and the twelve-note system of the Second Viennese School. Her Chaconne is broadly in the key of B minor and gives a prominent role to F sharp (both as a single note and as a key) as the closest relation of B minor, but it also employs twelve-note rows which are used with flexibility. Gubaidulina’s piano writing is often sparsely scored and looks spidery on the page, sometimes giving the impression that it might be a study for an orchestral work; for example, it is easy to imagine that she meant double-bass pizzicato for some staccato bass notes, or had the brassy sound of trumpets in mind for certain passages, or would have liked to add clangorous percussion to the loud chords of the opening and closing sections. For pianists, it is helpful to have these types of sonorities in mind when practising the piece. The theme of Gubaidulina’s Chaconne is eight bars long, not in triple time like Bach’s, but in duple time with imposing widely spaced chords that ring out like church bells. Its first four chords are B minor (twice), G and E flat – three chords separated by major thirds (which may be numerologically significant). Three other motifs stand out: a faster-moving little rhythmic motif with a Bartókian feel; a five-note curling motif in the right hand which is a little melodic anchor in the midst of dissonance; and, at the end of the theme, six rising steps of the wholetone scale in parallel chords (these examples of horizontal movement may be intended as contrasts with the verticality of the opening chords – or in other words, as elements of a cross-shape). As the piece develops, these motifs are useful little signposts. The theme is followed by seven variations, initially keeping the eight-bar format, and then (from the fourth variation onwards) becoming longer, which is 286


to say that they extend their explorations over two, three or more iterations of the chaconne ‘unit’. The fifth variation functions as a sort of scherzo within the piece, and subdivides into three sections each with a high point of its own. During this longer section, the note F sharp is pinged out and gradually becomes more noticeable. There follows a fugal section (variation 6), slightly cooler in temperature as one often finds at equivalent moments in the finales of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Although there are moments in the fugal writing where we seem to be in an almost jolly C major, the note F sharp continues to be sharply prominent. The seventh variation is a kind of look back at the opening pages, with the note F sharp becoming more and more insistent, as if to alert us to the imminent return of the home key, B minor. Just as in Bach’s violin chaconne, the decorative writing becomes faster and more ecstatic; with F sharps ringing through the texture like tiny cymbals, the right-hand figuration reaches a whirling frenzy of speed and intricacy. Then, after a sudden pause, the theme returns grandly in the home key. Old and new techniques combine as the left hand hammers out a dissonant noterow while the right hand proclaims the ascendancy of B minor with seven ringing chords.





Jazz was the USA’s great contribution to music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and it continues to be a huge influence on musicians all over the world. Musically it drew on African roots, was developed in AfricanAmerican communities, mainly in the southern states, and was taken up with enthusiasm by wider musical communities, spreading quickly to other parts of the world. The piano has been central to jazz since its beginning, partly because there were often upright pianos in churches, bars, places of entertainment, and famously in the ‘sporting houses’ or brothels where ragtime piano was developed. The piano has played many roles in jazz; at first, it was used mainly to supply chords and bass lines, as well as to keep singers or other instrumentalists on track by defining the pulse and contributing rhythmic accompaniments. As time went on, pianists liberated themselves from supporting roles and entered into dialogue with the soloists (often saxophone or other woodwind or brass players). Composers of jazz were often pianists themselves. It quickly became evident that there were many pianists whose techniques enabled them not only to converse with single-line players or singers but to hold their own as formidable soloists. Today, many of the most eminent jazz players are pianists. Jazz pianists have to become good at transposing, that is, playing tunes in any key requested by the singer or the other players. All jazz musicians have to be able to do this, but the challenge is greater for pianists, because they are not only playing single lines. Transposing into other keys requires the ability to think and calculate very fast, especially when the chords are rich and complex, or the tempo lively. Since classical music became more or less synonymous with notated music, most classical pianists are never confronted with the need to play a piece in a different key from the one they learned it in (though pianists who specialise in vocal accompaniment are still sometimes asked to play a song in a different key, to suit the singer’s voice). Although I and my chamber-music colleagues sometimes joked about it, I would have had a nervous breakdown if suddenly required to play, say, a Beethoven piano trio in a key different from the one he wrote it in. Even if my ear had been equal to the challenge, it would have taken some time to work out the new patterns of fingering on the keyboard. 291


Of course, notation has also fostered a culture of very complicated music. A lot of jazz is not notated, or uses just a sketch of the basic framework. A piano jazz ‘chart’ (a page of music score which typically notates a melody with simple indications of which chords are to be played under which melody notes) is much simpler than the piano part of a Beethoven trio, but it also needs to be, because there are many elements as yet undefined. I have been at jazz performances where I’ve seen one of the players turn to the pianist right before a piece begins and murmur, ‘In E flat’, or ‘In F’. Depending on which instruments are in the ensemble and which keys the players feel most comfortable in, the pianist may already have a shrewd idea of which key they will choose, but even so, to switch into any key at short notice requires a keen intelligence. Much of jazz has always been improvised, and many jazz musicians have not been trained to read notated music. This did not hold them back and may even have helped them to avoid the habits of obedience which cramp the style of conservatoire-trained musicians. However, although jazz was improvised, its improvisation has long depended on an understanding, shared with other players, of what the framework (for example, of chords) is and what the ‘rules of engagement’ are. Thus the good jazz musician is walking, or, you might say, skipping along a path laid out for them. In most kinds of jazz, improvising allows the player to use their imagination freely while still anchored to a musical framework, and this depends on developing a good musical ear allied to a good memory for chords, melodic shape, length of phrases and so on. The innate flexibility of jazz does not guarantee success: as with classical performance, one can hear every level of accomplishment. However, the sense of freedom and elation conveyed by good jazz players has been a source of inspiration to musicians and music-lovers around the world.



SCOTT JOPLIN (1867/8–1917) 86. Maple Leaf Rag (and other pieces) With his Maple Leaf Rag of 1899, Scott Joplin became the first important composer of ragtime, which was the earliest instrumental African-American music to be welcomed into mainstream (i.e. white) culture. Ragtime had its heyday around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, from roughly 1895 until 1920. The Chicago World Fair of 1893, at which millions of visitors heard ragtime, helped to spread word of this new and entertaining style. It can be described as a blend of African-American rhythms and the European marches (such as John Philip Sousa’s) and waltzes which were popular at the time. Ragtime became a national craze, boosting sales of sheet music and even the sale of pianos. To ‘rag’ a piano piece was to loosen up the rhythms in the right hand, so that while the left hand kept strict time, the melody in the right hand was displaced, landing on the cracks between the beats. This was considered making the tune ‘ragged’, which led to the term ‘ragtime’. Today we think of those melodic half-beats as syncopations, but syncopation has come to mean something smooth and sophisticated, whereas ‘ragging’ suggests an energetic spirit and humour. Lightness was added by having the left hand play bouncy offbeat chords on the second and fourth beats of the bar, making ragtime feel livelier than the traditional march. It was in a sense the beginning of jazz, although that term wasn’t used in music until 1915. Today ragtime seems a slightly strait-laced forebear of jazz, so it’s important to know that Joplin described its syncopations as ‘weird and intoxicating’, and in the early 1900s its rhythmic freedoms were (in some quarters) considered rather daring, even unsuitable for polite society. Ragtime flourished just before sound recording became widely available. Ragtime thus came down to us as a written tradition, and on piano rolls. (These were made for ‘player pianos’ which had a pneumatic mechanism through which



paper rolls could be made to operate the piano keys, making it look as if an invisible pianist was playing.) As with other forms of written music, we have to deduce how ragtime was actually played from comments made by those who played or heard it. In the case of Joplin, we have the admonition he wrote on several of his pieces: ‘Notice! Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast.’ This had led to some very stolid ‘respectful’ performances, even on disc. But one would have to know what Joplin meant by ‘fast’. There’s a recording of Maple Leaf Rag made by the United States Marine Band in 1906 which goes at quite a clip. Joplin himself made a piano roll in 1916, the year before he died, but he left no indication of how fast the roll is meant to be played (the mechanism can be set to different speeds), so this doesn’t settle the question. Possibly he meant something like, ‘Don’t make it sound trivial’, or ‘Don’t mess it around’. For Joplin cared about his ragtime compositions and wanted his notes to be faithfully conveyed. His early lessons in classical music with Julius Weiss, his German émigré piano teacher in Texas, may have given him a respect for the composer’s instructions. He knew what atmosphere he wanted to create: ‘very often good players lose the effect entirely,’ he warned. So what was the effect? Very likely this way of ‘ragging’ a march started off with the improvisations of African-American players, good musicians who couldn’t read music but had an instinctive sense of how to give a march tempo a bit of ‘swing’. Written ragtime was probably just a way of formalising something that was already being done in the saloon bars and dancehalls. Joplin had a particular way of varying the straightforward traditional harmonies of a march by introducing half-steps up or down from the main key, giving the music a wistful quality. And although the music is generally in a major key, we sometimes find ourselves unexpectedly in the minor. (These last two are characteristic of Schubert’s music, which Joplin probably encountered in his lessons with Julius Weiss.) Added to this is the ‘Spanish tinge’ then popular in New Orleans – the hint of Cuban habanera rhythm which finds its way into some of Joplin’s music. The unusual combination of strict march tempo with a syncopated melody line, a hint of Cuban cross-rhythms, an attention to detail, and the old-world European harmonic colouring – all these give Joplin’s rags a flavour of refined merriment shot through 294


with melancholy. They influenced classical composers too – Stravinsky was a fan (Piano-Rag Music) and so were Erik Satie (‘Le Piccadilly’) and Claude Debussy (‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ and ‘General Lavine – eccentric’). Ragtime faded with the advent of stride piano and various jazz styles that followed. In the 1970s, Joshua Rifkin’s record of Joplin’s music and the film The Sting alerted a new generation to Joplin’s charming waltzes (Bethena) and rags (The Entertainer, The Easy Winners). But Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin’s very first hit, remains his signature number. Like many another popular piano piece of the time, it is not at all easy to play – a fact remarked upon by its first publisher, who wondered whether it would be more admired than actually played by amateurs (there’s still some truth to this). Rather than having a singable tune, Maple Leaf Rag has catchy motifs based on ‘broken’ arpeggios. Although it sets out in the major, after just a few bars its colour is darkened by the minor key, and the left hand adds some wistful Romantic harmonies. Now comes the famous middle section, in which the left hand thumps out the beats and half-beats as the right hand dances down a chromatic line in delicious cross-rhythms (essentially, the very top line of the treble delineating a pattern of three semiquavers against the two or four semiquavers in the left hand). Then come two ‘trio’ sections, the first in the new key of D flat, and a bouncier second section linking back from this key to the home key of A flat. As was often the way with this kind of music (see also Billy Mayerl’s), the piece ends with the trio section and doesn’t go back to reprise the main section, as one might expect with the classical ‘minuet and trio’ format. To play the cross-rhythms with the right spirit and accuracy requires co-ordination, steady rhythm and an ability to be light on one’s feet (or hands), but when these qualities are combined the effect is entrancing. In his 1975 novel Ragtime, set in the early years of the twentieth century, the American writer E.L. Doctorow has a beautiful description of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag played by the main character: ‘This was a vigorous music that roused the senses and never stood still for a moment. The boy perceived it as light touching various places in space, accumulating in intricate patterns until the entire room was made to glow with its own being.’ 295


BILLY MAYERL (1902–1959) 87. The Jazz Master (and other pieces) Billy Mayerl was a brilliant pianist and the composer of some of the finest as well as some of the most fiendishly difficult light music that has been written for piano. His music is an English development of American ragtime and ‘novelty ragtime’ piano style. Billy Mayerl was one of the first classically trained British pianists to jump ship for a new style when ‘syncopated music’ arrived from America. As a teenage student of classical piano at Trinity College of Music in London, he liked to sneak off and listen to American numbers such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band on penny-in-the-slot machines in the pub. ‘They had a thrill and a liveliness which fascinated me,’ he recalled. ‘I never wanted anything so much in my young life as to be able to infuse my weekly College composition with some of that “go” and quick rhythm.’ These days most college piano teachers would, on principle, be open to hearing any music that their students were enthusiastic about, but in 1914 Mayerl’s teachers were aghast. ‘When Doctor Pearce, the harmony teacher at that time, and the Principal of the College heard the effort,’ Mayerl recalled, ‘. . . they said it was a monstrosity that disgraced the College, and if I ever did anything like it again I would be thrown out.’ The following year he either left Trinity or was asked to leave (accounts vary) and became a professional ‘syncopator’. This was a shrewd move, for within a short time he was earning more than his classical peers and was soon to have a level of celebrity that none of them could have dreamed of. One of the pieces rejected by his tutors was published in 1923 as The Jazz Master. ‘It was the first syncopated jazz composition for the piano, quite different from the honky-tonk of the American ragtimes,’ Mayerl said. ‘Over 150,000 people bought copies of it – I say “bought” advisedly, for I can’t say they were playing it. They couldn’t!’ If it was different from the American ragtimes, that difference lay perhaps in a slightly more restrained use of offbeat melodies, taking its cue more from Felix Arndt’s Nola (1915) and Zez Confrey whose Kitten on the Keys was a huge American hit in 1921. 296


As in most ragtime pieces, there are several sections. The second main section employs pleasing cross-rhythm in a three-against-two effect. After a short reprise, there’s a ‘Trio’ section in a different key (A flat instead of the prevailing E flat), but the mood remains energetic and the dotted-rhythm bounce is never quelled. Accuracy is essential and Mayerl made it look easy, but anyone who has tried to perform his intricate pieces with any sort of ‘go’ will have discovered that careless wrong notes ruin not only the harmony but also the intended effect of effortless style, the pianistic equivalent of Fred Astaire’s dancing. One might wonder why, in a style designed to be popular, Billy Mayerl produced such technically challenging pieces. My own feeling is that his piano pieces are first and foremost the notated evidence of his own virtuosity: that was what he cherished. In 1923 Mayerl had joined the band of the luxurious Savoy Hotel in London, playing for dinner dances that attracted the cream of society. He was offered solo spots for his own compositions, which intrigued the dancing couples enough that they stopped dancing and gathered round the stage to watch. Word started to spread of his amazing piano solos, but the man in the street never got to hear them until the Savoy Havana band started being broadcast nationwide on radio. Mayerl’s solo piano pieces were a highlight of the broadcasts and brought him personal fame. In October 1925 he was the soloist in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, at the Queen’s Hall in London. Gershwin himself had premiered the piece with the band at the Savoy, but Mayerl’s performance was the first attended by the general public. In 1926 he left the Savoy to concentrate on solo appearances, to compose and to start his own Billy Mayerl School of Piano, which blossomed into a ‘Correspondence Course in Modern Syncopation’. He devised tutor books which were sent out to subscribers along with newsletters. His success was astonishing: by the mid-1930s the correspondence course had 30,000 students in 117 branches around the world and was employing 100 staff. Members of the Royal family were subscribers, and in 1930 the press reported that when the King and Queen of Spain visited London, the Princesses Beatriz and Maria Cristina ‘often take lessons from Billy Mayerl, who is one of the foremost jazz pianists. They are making excellent progress, much to the despair of their Spanish music master’. 297


Billy Mayerl wrote and recorded many charming piano pieces (Marigold, The Antiquary, The Harp of the Winds, Sleepy Piano) and made a lot of money all through the 1920s and 1930s, until the Second World War brought an end to frivolity. After the war, the atmosphere was different. Mayerl’s music fell out of fashion until there was something of a revival in the 1990s, when the Billy Mayerl Society was founded. I’m very fond of Mayerl’s vivacious pieces and often programme them in recitals, but one has to be careful about how and where to include them, because they can eclipse the more serious pieces on the programme. I feel a bit like a restaurant chef who doesn’t want people to go home talking only about how fabulous the dessert was!


FATS WALLER (1904–1943) 88. Handful of Keys (and James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Stride Piano) Ragtime was a style with quite a formal manner and a recognisable structure, usually of four or five short march-like sections one after another, each section to be repeated. The time signature was generally 2/4, or two crotchets in the bar, divided into four quavers; the left hand played bass notes (often single) on quavers 1 and 3, while on quavers 2 and 4 it played a mid-range chord confirming the harmony. The right hand played syncopated melody or rhythmic figuration. By the 1920s this style had been expanded by innovative African-American pianists. Instead of playing single bass notes or octaves on the beat, they now often played intervals of a tenth, for example C to E (for which you had to have a big hand). Ragtime pianists rarely delved down to the bottom register of the keyboard, but now pianists started to use more of the bass range, filling in the mid-range with chords on the offbeats as before. The expanded range of the left hand meant that pianists had to move large distances back and forth across the 298


keyboard, often with their hand in ‘open’ position because of the big intervals, and this became known as ‘striding’ or ‘stride piano’. Ragtime was usually notated, but this new style could be applied to any popular tune. This was a boon for the many good African-American musicians who didn’t read music, because they could ‘stride through’ the popular songs of the day by ear, adding swing as they wished. Strict march tempo with its ‘don’t play fast!’ ethos was relaxed into a wide variety of tempos, mostly on the faster side. Syncopated lines became freer. Pianists started to lead into their big tunes with leisurely introductions which gave the listeners time to settle down. The left hand was occasionally liberated from playing the pulse in order to join the right hand in a cascade of alternating chords. Even if the left hand kept strict time, the right hand now became acrobatic, gambolling around the treble region of the keyboard in rapid figuration usually derived from the arpeggio. ‘Tunes’ were not the focal point of stride piano – the patterns which lay naturally under the fingers were the building blocks for improvisation, underlining the fact that stride was an instrumental form, not an imitation of sung style. Realistically, stride piano was only mastered by very good players, because the wide jumps across the keyboard necessitated supreme accuracy and an innate sense of the geography of the keyboard. It was the preserve of male pianists above all – there were some excellent female stride players, but they had to have big hands. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s there were competitions between stride pianists, typically male-dominated events where a pianist could be elbowed off the piano stool by someone else who thought they could play faster, louder or more entertainingly. Because of this ‘cutting in’ on another pianist, these popular events were known as ‘cutting contests’. Several of the best-known stride pianists were aficionados of cutting contests. Even today, a number of jazz styles retain the custom of ‘swapping eights’ in the middle of an improvisation, handing over the theme from one instrument to another, often with an implied ‘See if you can do better!’ This may be a minor legacy of the cutting contests, though ‘swapping eights’ can also be seen as a simple way of subdividing a longer piece, giving individual players a rest. One of the pianists who straddled the change from ragtime to stride piano was Jelly Roll Morton, who played both styles. The evolution from ragtime can be seen 299


in his habit of playing ‘with swing’ in both hands, not just the right. He tended to play a little more slowly than some of his fellow stride pianists, and made use of this slower tempo to decorate the melody line with little sprays of ‘grace’ notes not unlike Chopin’s ornaments. He devised a way of playing the tune with his right thumb, leaving four fingers of the right hand to accompany the melody with chords that lay higher than the tune, an interesting innovation. And in his left hand, he sometimes used the interval of a sixth instead of an octave or a tenth. The three African-American pianists generally regarded as giants of stride piano were James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Fats Waller. Johnson, who played ragtime as well as stride, was a brilliant pianist whose 1921 phonograph records were among the first jazz piano solos on disc. He was so highly esteemed by his contemporaries that his recorded solos (not available as sheet music) were often learned note for note from recordings and used as test pieces in competitions; Harlem Strut was one such, and Duke Ellington remembered memorising Carolina Shout from a record. Johnson often worked as an accompanist for singers and was able to play their songs in any key they wished, a sign of excellent musicianship. He was the favourite accompanist of singer Bessie Smith. His recording of You’ve Got to be Modernistic demonstrated his wonderfully fluent, confident touch as well as accuracy. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith set the bar similarly high with his challenging Finger Buster, a rapid virtuoso piece requiring both hands to jump about independently. It was also used as a sort of gold standard for stride pianists to copy. During the First World War he enlisted in the US Army, became the drum major for his regiment, and got his nickname ‘The Lion’ from his brave conduct on the front lines in France. Willie ‘The Lion’ was a big personality who enjoyed being the master of ceremonies at musical events and was a popular competitor at ‘cutting contests’ in Harlem. Allegedly he always had a cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth, as one can see in clips of his later televised performances, but despite the cigar he often managed to sing while he was playing. Willie’s father was Jewish and as a boy Willie had encountered European styles of music including classical. Their influence can be heard in his own composition Echoes of Spring, whose echoes include Debussy’s Passepied and Chabrier’s Idylle with added swing and nonchalance. 300


Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, the star pupil of James P. Johnson, was a versatile musician who played several instruments, composed hundreds of songs, was a brilliant ‘Harlem stride’ pianist and a larger-than-life personality whose running commentary during his performances was judged to be as skilled as his piano-playing. In the 1920s he was kidnapped by four mysterious men when leaving a performance in Chicago and hustled into the Hawthorne Hotel where he discovered he was to be the surprise entertainer at a party hosted by gangster Al Capone. It can’t have been too frightening an experience, because allegedly he stayed at the hotel for three days and left with thousands of dollars in tips. ‘Fats’ was one of the era’s most brilliant pianists, with a technique that was equal to classical piano repertoire as well as dazzling stride piano. In his 1941 recording of his own song Honeysuckle Rose, billed on the RCA Bluebird label as ‘à la Bach, à la Beethoven, à la Brahms, à la Waller’, he makes playful reference to historical piano styles, flavouring them with his own jazz technique. He (like Rachmaninoff ) could stretch an octave and a fifth on the keyboard, and the blind jazz pianist George Shearing once said that shaking hands with Fats was ‘like grabbing a bunch of bananas’. Sadly, because of his weight and his unhealthy lifestyle, Fats only lived to the age of thirty-nine. Although best known for his inimitable performances of his songs (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Your Feet’s Too Big, The Joint is Jumping, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter), his 1929 recording of the piano solo Handful of Keys demonstrates the bounce, agility, accuracy and sense of sheer fun which makes him irresistible.

ART TATUM (1909–1956) 89. Tiger Rag (and other pieces) The African-American jazz pianist Art Tatum has been an inspiration of mine since student days. Tatum had impaired vision all his life; by the time he was an adult he was blind in his left eye, and had very limited vision in his right (though, as his friend and fellow jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan dryly said, ‘I know he could see women’). As a child he taught himself to play the piano by listening to piano rolls, 301


radio shows and recordings. Already as a teenager he had his own radio show in Toledo, Ohio, and soon visiting artists were making a point of coming to hear him play. Even then, Tatum had formed the habit of staying on after closing hours so that he could continue playing, and was known to play through the night, just for the fun of it. Word spread and soon he was being summoned to New York. Surprisingly, he put it off for a while because he felt he was not ready for the big city, but when he did make it there in 1932 he went along to Morgan’s Bar in Harlem to take part in a ‘cutting contest’ with the three stride pianists mentioned above: Fats Waller, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and James P. Johnson. When Tatum played his mindboggling arrangement of Tea for Two, everyone acknowledged that a new king of the piano scene had arrived. (His 1953 recording of it gives some idea.) It’s said that, on hearing Tatum play, quite a few professional pianists felt discouraged, because what was the point of practising when there was someone who could play like that? Despite being almost blind – or perhaps because of it? – Tatum had a sureness of touch and a pitch-perfect understanding of the keyboard which allowed him to speed lightly across the keys, hitting every note he wanted like a precision cutting tool, each note clean and clear, as in his amazing recording of Tiger Rag. Wrong notes appeared not to be in his vocabulary. All the usual technical challenges seemed easy for him, even at the fast tempos he favoured. His big hands enabled him to put down complex chords with added harmonic notes which didn’t really feature in jazz again until decades later. But these were only technical aspects. What really impressed his fellow musicians was his ability to subject a well-known tune to complex re-harmonisations, adding middle voices, playing in two keys at once, playing ‘solos’ with his left hand, creating ‘orchestral’ layers of texture with different things going on in each layer, all beautifully separate and controlled. Even at the end of phrases, if there were a couple of empty beats before the next phrase, Tatum would nonchalantly fill them with a pearly cascade or an arpeggio so fast that one could scarcely see the individual keys being played. At the next such breathing space, he might modulate rapidly into a distant key and scuttle out again, just to fill the time (as in his live 1935 recording of Lulu’s Back in Town). 302


Listeners had the sense that, even though the tempo was fast, Tatum had plenty of time to think. On the video clips of his playing, he looks perfectly relaxed – focused, yes, but at ease. His face shows none of the grimaces or tense jaw movements that one so often sees with pianists – even very good ones – under pressure. For me as a fellow pianist, the most remarkable thing about Tatum is that his concentration does not seem to need to ‘go up a gear’ for anything in particular. Most of us probably know that sense of ‘Uh-oh, here it comes’ when we approach a really challenging passage. We home in on it, paying extra attention so that it will turn out well. Tatum does not seem to do this. Simple passages or difficult passages, cute melodies or seven-octave arpeggios are alike to him; his concentration flows serenely across them and his heart beats evenly. One feels one could learn something valuable from this for one’s own playing. Fans have often wondered how much improvisation there really was in Tatum’s recorded solos. Judging from pieces he recorded several times over the years, it seems that he may have prepared certain pieces in anticipation of recording them, and when he repeated them in later years he adhered more or less to the same plan. However, there are many accounts which make it clear that his long stints of after-hours playing in his favourite clubs were improvised. Indeed, listeners said he was even more creative when he thought no microphone was around, and would often abandon the tune and do extensive improvisations on a sequence of interesting chords, as ‘modern jazz’ was to do. Tatum once told a friend that he practised improvising on tunes in every key, adding that it was amazing what ideas would come to you if you were comfortable in every key. When Tatum played in New York clubs, some of the greatest pianists of the day used to drop in after their own concerts to hear him. Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, George Gershwin – they all sat quietly and marvelled at the reflexes and harmonic imagination of this self-taught African-American pianist who might not even have been welcome in the concert halls where they had just performed. And the young saxophone player Charlie Parker, who had a job washing up in one of Tatum’s regular spots in Manhattan, was listening and learning too. I love the recording Tatum made of his own arrangement of a Dvořák Humoresque, somehow a homage rather than a travesty. Tatum works his magic on the lilting 303


melody, turning it into a display of jazz piano virtuosity. Would Dvořák have minded? Already in the 1890s Dvořák had said that ‘Negro music’ was the future of American music, so he would probably have enjoyed Tatum’s affectionate teasing.

BEBOP PIANISTS 90. Bud Powell (1924–1966), Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) and others Bebop was a highly influential jazz style that arose in New York in the 1940s. At that time, musicians who had finished their paid employment at this or that club or café would often gather late at night to play more music, this time without an audience, just for the pleasure of it. Most of the participants were gifted AfricanAmerican musicians and the sessions quickly became experimental. They took standard jazz, blues or Broadway numbers (such as George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, a favourite) but instead of improvising melodies clearly related to the underlying harmonies, as they would have done for the public, they pushed the boundaries and started using melody notes more and more remote from the chord sequence, and with daring dissonances. This was a style which had several important characteristics. It was by musicians for other musicians; it was for participants, not primarily for an audience. It was not designed to be singable – it was an instrumental style. Instead of a big band or large jazz ensemble being the norm, bebop was played by small groups. The improvising was serious and quickly became competitive, showcasing the participants’ individual virtuosity. There was an element of setting the bar deliberately high so that only truly skilled players could join in, or stay in. Tempos were usually rapid, and musicians made a point of changing frequently into other keys to test one another’s aural skills. The usual ‘sweet’ vibrato was phased out by the wind players: bebop tone is purer and harder, emphasising the fact that it was not ‘customer-facing’. Phrasing was no longer in standard lengths; players usually began off the beat and often ended a phrase in between beats as well. Instead of using the popular swing style, they took to playing in rapid even quavers, a development made necessary partly by their fast tempos which left little room for swing. In ‘trad jazz’ it was 304


possible for a musician with a grasp of a few main chords to feel their way along by ear. In this new style, it was impossible to thrive unless you actually understood the underlying harmonic structure and were able to keep track of it amid the dissonance. It was a style for connoisseurs. Bebop musicians, many of whom had suffered racial stereotyping, thought of themselves not as entertainers but as serious artists. The origin of the name ‘bebop’ is not clear, but probably came from the style of jazz singing known as ‘scat’, where instead of using words a singer would improvise in nonsense syllables: ‘doo-be-doo-WAP!’ Some musicians didn’t like the nickname, because it seemed disrespectful to a style which was serious and intellectual. When the first bebop recordings appeared in 1945, the wider public were a little puzzled as well, not just by the name but by the style. Nevertheless, bebop became and has remained hugely influential. Bebop may be said to parallel developments in the classical/art music world of the early twentieth century where composers were likewise pushing the boundaries of dissonance. Undoubtedly there were some bebop musicians, for instance the great saxophone player Charlie Parker, who took an interest in what had been going on in the world of Bartók and Schoenberg and may have seen themselves as walking the same experimental path. Others felt that the inspiration for bebop could be traced back to music from the players’ African heritage. Perhaps both are true. The pianist Bud Powell is acknowledged to have been one of the most important bebop musicians and was, as Herbie Hancock said, ‘the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano’. Art Tatum was Powell’s inspiration, and he shared Tatum’s ability to process chord changes at lightning speed and reflect them in scintillating runs. Powell was a troubled character who was in and out of state psychiatric hospitals most of his working life. Remarkably, he recorded some of his finest tracks while on day release from hospital in the late 1940s. His solo album Jazz Giant, which came out in 1949, contains the remarkable Tempus Fugit (Time Flies), where he launches straight in with high-octane virtuoso runs over complex rapid chords. Powell’s runs are played in straight, even, detached and clearly articulated quavers, not in pairs of ‘swung’ notes. His right hand seems to imitate his friend Charlie Parker’s saxophone playing, flying up and down the octaves with irresistible 305


élan. Powell was known to envy the acclaim and applause that ‘single line’ players such as trumpeters and saxophonists received for their solos, and was probably motivated to emulate their virtuoso style as well as their mastery of melody lines. On the same album, his composition Celia shows him in more reflective mood. One of Powell’s finest tracks is a trio recording he made for Blue Note Records in 1950 with bassist Curly Russell and drummer Max Roach. Powell composed the tune, Un poco loco, in Afro-Cuban style. The independence of his hands and his rhythmic inventiveness are remarkable, and almost as notable is the way the bass and drums are liberated from their usual time-keeping duties to become more participatory and imaginative in the trio. Very different in style from the mercurial Bud Powell was another revered bebop pianist, Thelonious Monk, famous for remarking that ‘The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.’ Renowned for his hats, sunglasses and suits, Monk was an idiosyncratic performer and composer. He wrote the beautiful 1944 classic Round Midnight, still one of the most recorded numbers in jazz, a potential pitfall for the unwary with its complicated chord changes. It isn’t typical of his piano style, which tended towards the lumbering and defiant. (The poet Philip Larkin, a huge jazz fan, once described Monk’s style as ‘a faux-naïf elephant dance’.) Many of Monk’s seventy tunes (including Blue Monk, Straight No Chaser, Well You Needn’t, Ruby My Dear) have become jazz standards. Monk was not one of those bebop pianists who loved to race around the piano creating filigree embellishments of the underlying chords; rather, he sometimes gave the impression that he was delving into the underside of the tune, ferreting about in its roots and not even bothering to state the tune itself, let alone decorate it. He favoured a laconic performance style with jagged asymmetrical phrases and unexpected, intriguing silences in between the phrases. Distillation was his style, he liked to express himself sparingly, and he liked moderate and slow tempos. These factors may have played a part in the fact that he rose to fame more slowly than some of his bebop colleagues like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Thelonious Monk was not everyone’s cup of tea. Monk’s piano tone was plain, often percussive, and although he played the piano all his life it sometimes seems as if his hands still felt awkward as they moved 306


about the keys. He often uses a modernised form of ‘stride’ piano bass with strange, angular chords; in melodies he jabs at odd, distant keys, and to the outsider it sometimes seems as if he didn’t care whether he was liked or not. However, his unique sound became part of jazz piano vocabulary, and the force of his musical ideas gradually won him many fans. Monk was famous for getting up from the piano and doing a little dance on stage while others in his group were playing solos. Although it seemed eccentric at the time, today’s teachers of the Alexander Technique and physiotherapists might even advocate this way of walking away from the piano and moving around to release tension. Other renowned exponents of bebop were Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams, Horace Silver, Lennie Tristano and Jaki Byard (with whom I studied jazz piano), many of whom lived to adapt their styles to post-bebop eras and to enjoy further success. Along with Powell and Monk they influenced the playing of Bill Evans, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. Bebop and its offshoot, ‘hard bop’, gave way in the 1960s to less intense forms such as modal and free jazz, but the legacy of bebop can be heard in the musical vocabulary of every serious jazz pianist working today.

BILL EVANS (1929–1980) 91. Waltz for Debby (and other pieces) In the early days of jazz piano, from ragtime to stride, the style of piano-playing was predominantly rhythmic. This was so when the pianist was playing as part of a band, but even when playing on their own, pianists tended to focus on the percussive qualities of the piano. It’s always been a temptation when playing an instrument that carries its own weight and invites the player to relish and make use of those many little downward strokes on its eighty-eight keys. Most of the famous piano recordings from the 1920s onwards are characterised by lively and skilful rhythmic patterns. But as I mentioned in the section on bebop pianists, Bud Powell, who could play stride piano with the best of them, started experimenting in the 1940s and 307


1950s with imitating his colleague Charlie Parker’s saxophone playing. The saxophone is principally a melodic instrument and Powell wanted to be able to create melody lines like that on the piano. He developed an influential style where his right hand played long and complex lines of melodic improvisation while his left hand sketched in the beats, leaving the heavier rhythm aspects to the bass and drums. This was an important influence on later pianists who appreciated being liberated from the duties of the rhythm section. Bill Evans took this idea further and became famous for his lyrical and thoughtful approach to the piano. Evans was trained as a classical pianist, and to the end of his life he paid tribute to the keyboard works of J.S. Bach and the way they kept his fingers in good training. He learned to play Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, but became particularly fond of the music of the ‘French Impressionists’, Debussy and his circle, whose gentle sophisticated harmonies are easy to hear in Evans’s improvisations. He moved into jazz in the 1950s and joined the Miles Davis Sextet at a crucial time, just before their recording of Kind of Blue, the best-selling 1959 jazz album. Probably Evans’s classical background helped him to understand what Miles Davis was driving at when he asked his players to improvise not on pre-existing tunes but rather on a series of ‘modes’, scales using different combinations of steps and half-steps between the notes. At any rate, Evans’s piano contribution to Kind of Blue was one of its most striking aspects. Right from the opening track one can hear Evans’s unusual chord voicings, often using notes a fourth apart rather than a third as was more common. (This was probably the beginning of the so-called ‘quartal harmony’ which became an important part of jazz vocabulary.) The piano seems to float in a kind of alto range, leaving other instruments to state the bass line. Listeners were also struck by how sparingly and elegantly he dabbed in his unusual chords like a painter evoking an effect without actually drawing an outline. Later, Evans was credited with having softened the hard sonorities which Miles Davis had previously favoured. After Evans left the Davis Sextet, he formed the first of several trios – piano, double bass and drums – which made his name. This was a skilful choice of partners, because the bass and drums could take over the job of defining the beat 308


while Bill continued to refine his approach to complex harmonies and timekeeping. His harmonies were what one might call ‘high-end’: he often took a standard ‘seventh chord’, adding ninths, elevenths, thirteenths and so on, but then selecting only the higher notes as the components of his chords. The root of the chord was often not stated (at least not by the piano). This gave his harmonies an unusual, floating quality. Taking this effect even further, Bill Evans cultivated a very sophisticated way of placing his chords just before or after the beat, rarely where one expects them. He extended this style into the right hand too. His right-hand improvisations are an exquisite illustration of artist Paul Klee’s remark that ‘a drawing is simply a line going for a walk’. Evans takes his right hand on a walk, often using just a single graceful line to meander purposefully around the melodic signposts that listeners were looking out for. His classically trained touch enabled him to ‘swing’ without losing quality of tone. His classical background came out too in works such as his 1958 Peace Piece; over a recurring left-hand sequence very similar to the one Chopin used in his Berceuse, Evans improvises a right-hand line which has echoes of Chopin’s filigree decoration but goes further, towards the ‘birdsong’ of Olivier Messiaen, with strange, wistful chirping in the high treble region, often in a different key. His temperament inclined him towards melancholy ballads (But Beautiful, Very Early, Turn out the Stars) where his lyrical gift and his mellow sonority was most strikingly in evidence. Bebop was part of his style too, as one can hear in his composition Funkallero, but he was most cherished for pieces like Waltz for Debby, where he constructs a delicate architecture of lines and chords, outwardly restrained but full of inner life. For many years, Evans was a heroin addict. The altered state of mind in which he often performed is said to be evident in his playing, which indeed demonstrates a kind of super-focus, a sharpened awareness of each moment and the detail that it could contain. It is impossible to know, however, whether Evans would have been able to develop these qualities without drug use, and impossible not to regret the damage done to him by heroin and cocaine which resulted in his death at the age of fifty-one. (I was keenly aware of this sad event because I had just arrived in America to study jazz and was hoping to have some lessons with him.) 309


His 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard club in New York with his favourite trio colleagues Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motian (drums) are a joy to watch and listen to. Waltz for Debby is one of the tracks, though the whole collection is often cited as a high point of recorded jazz. Dressed in suit and tie, his hair neatly combed back, and wearing his intellectual-looking horn-rimmed glasses, Bill ignores the audience, concentrating intently on the piano, leaning forward and sometimes bending low over the keys in the manner of his contemporary, the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Bill creates a rapt performance atmosphere which seems to owe something to the classical concert hall. His lyricism, his taste, his refined voicings, his serious approach to his chosen craft have all had an enormous influence on later jazz pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and more recently, Brad Mehldau. To many people’s ears, however, Bill Evans remains inimitable.

WOMEN JAZZ PIANISTS IN A MAN’S WORLD 92. Mazie Mullins, Lovie Austin, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott and Marian McPartland Since the very beginning of the jazz era there have been women pianists, but for many different reasons they have often been overlooked or their achievements minimised. Jazz has always been primarily a male preserve, and probably still is despite progress made in recent decades. The women who attained celebrity status in jazz in the early years were mostly singers, or ‘songstresses’ as they were sometimes known, hired for their looks as well as their talent. Instrumental jazz has always been male-dominated, and female pianists have had to learn to be ‘one of the boys’ if they wanted to pursue a professional career. As New York jazz collector and record label founder Rosetta Reitz observed about women’s instrumental playing styles, ‘We haven’t yet had a female voice in jazz, because those women who have been successful have not wanted to identify with their womanliness. They’ve preferred rather to identify with the male voice that comes from jazz. And it’s understandable, because it’s a very positive voice. 310


I think it’ll be a very long time before we hear what the female sensibility in jazz is.’ For women pianists who liked to play solo, one of the few opportunities in the early years of jazz was to play piano (and sometimes organ) in a movie theatre. During the era of silent films, pianists were employed to sit in ‘the pit’ and play music that enhanced what was happening on screen. Sometimes the music was improvised, sometimes it was specially composed, and sometimes they were asked to play classical music, so they had to be versatile. They also had to accompany the stage acts, a variety of entertainers employed by movie houses to keep the audience happy while waiting for the films. Fats Waller recalled that as a young teenager he learned a great deal about jazz improvisation by sneaking into the Lincoln Movie Theater on 135th Street in Harlem to listen to the AfricanAmerican pianist Miss Mazie Mullins (1888–1921) responding with lightning flexibility to whatever was going on in the film narrative. Another African-American movie house pianist was Lovie Austin (1887– 1972). She led her own band in Chicago in the 1920s, wrote music, played in vaudeville, accompanied blues singers, and was well known around town as a glamorous and stylishly dressed figure at the wheel of her own car. Also working in Chicago in the 1920s was Lil Hardin, later Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898–1971) when she married the trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Hardin played the piano in ‘King’ Oliver’s band as well as in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. She was one of the only musicians in those bands who could write music down, and she taught Armstrong to read music. Her composition Hotter than That, on which Louis plays trumpet and sings, was a big hit for the Hot Five. One of the women jazz pianists with the longest career was the formidable Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981), who taught herself the piano at the age of three and by the age of six was supporting her family by playing the piano at neighbourhood parties in Pittsburgh. By the age of thirteen she was playing in one of Duke Ellington’s early bands, the Washingtonians. She worked with nearly all the leading jazz musicians of the day and developed her own solo career. In 1930, at the age of only twenty, she went to Chicago and recorded two piano solos, Nightlife and Drag ’Em, which made her name nationwide. These recordings show 311


her confident touch, her sense of swing and her agility. Over the decades she composed, performed, was an inspiration to the younger bebop generation and hosted a radio show in New York. In the 1950s she suffered some kind of burn-out and took a three-year break from the piano. During this time she converted to Catholicism, and in later years was deeply involved with the church and composing religious music. Her social conscience made her open her home to many jazz musicians struggling with addiction or poverty. Trinidad-born Hazel Scott (1920–1981) was one of the most naturally gifted jazz pianists. Her parents moved with her to New York when she was four, and by the age of eight she had won a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School. By nineteen she was playing jazz on radio and was a star attraction at the nightclub Café Society, where she became known as ‘the hot classicist’. By twenty-five she was earning what today would be a million dollars a year, an astonishing achievement for a woman jazz pianist at the time, and in 1950 she became the first person of African heritage to have her own show on television. This illustrious career was curtailed by her involvement in civil rights issues, her uncompromising attitude with employers, her opposition to racial stereotyping, and her appearance in front of the House Un-American Committee, which led first to her TV show being cancelled and then to her decision to leave the United States and move to Paris in the 1950s. In other words, her political conscience barred her from achieving the fame she should have enjoyed in America. Scott was a virtuoso pianist as well as a glamorous figure with natural screen presence. She appeared as herself in films including 1943’s The Heat’s On, where with extraordinary flair and co-ordination she plays two pianos (a black one and a white one) at once, flipping her piano stool around from one to another, sometimes playing one piano with each hand, or starting one phrase on the white piano and finishing it on the black one, all the while communing as much with the camera as with the keyboard. Her performance can be seen on a clip entitled Black and White Are Beautiful. Marian McPartland (1918–2013) was another jazz pianist with enviable career longevity. Born in England, she studied classical piano but, to her family’s dismay, decided to pursue her love of light music and jazz as a professional pianist; for a while she was a member of Billy Mayerl’s four-piano quartet. She emigrated to the 312


United States where she played with many different leading jazzmen, formed her own trio and founded the Halcyon Records label. For ten years, from 1952 to 1962, she had a regular spot at the Hickory House jazz club where Duke Ellington used to come to listen to her; she took to heart his advice that she played ‘too many notes’. (Her mellow, cultured style is apparent in the 1953 recording Marian McPartland Trio at the Hickory House.) Already in the 1950s, she began writing articles which questioned why women could not have their own style and were obliged to emulate the styles displayed by male jazz pianists. She was the host of a long-running radio show, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, on National Public Radio from 1978 to 2011, and received many honours for her involvement in education projects. McPartland is one of the few women and the few white people among fifty-seven jazz artists captured in Art Kane’s historic 1958 photograph, A Great Day in Harlem. As has been noted by jazz historians, the Second World War and the draft of men into the army opened up more opportunities for women jazz musicians. Gradually, with the coming of equality laws and the advent of feminism, jazz became a somewhat easier world for women to enter, though even today it still has daunting aspects. In more recent years there have been many excellent women jazz pianists – Nina Simone, Carla Bley, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Joanne Brackeen, Zoe Rahman – but arguably they are still required to prove themselves to an excessive degree in a man’s world. The six women pianists described above were yet more remarkable, fighting their way to the platform in a society which had all kinds of inbuilt prejudices against their being there.


GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898–1937) 93. Rhapsody in Blue The most famous opening gesture in American music came about by a happy chain of circumstances. In 1924, songwriter George Gershwin was asked by Paul Whiteman to write a ‘jazz concerto’, to be included in a concert Whiteman was planning of jazzy 313


pieces interspersed with classical pieces played by the Whiteman Band. By creating ‘symphonic jazz’, the plan was to make jazz respectable to classical concertgoers, as well as encouraging jazz fans into the concert hall. Gershwin had never written a long piece, but he was keen to try. He wasn’t in the habit of orchestrating, either, as he usually composed his songs at the piano and handed them over to someone else to orchestrate for theatre shows. So when Gershwin composed the opening gesture for Rhapsody in Blue he had no idea it would come to mean ‘New York’ or ‘America’ to music-lovers around the world. He planned to start with a trill and rise note by note up a nice sweet B flat major scale, seventeen separate notes over two and a half octaves, to the high B flat, the first note of the famous theme. When it was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, the talented pianist/arranger of the Whiteman band, he gave the opening scale to the clarinet. But at the first rehearsal, clarinettist Ross Gorman, just for fun, played the first octave ‘normally’ and the rest as a drawn-out wailing glissando. Gershwin loved it and asked him to play it like that – with as much ‘wail’ as possible – at the premiere. On the night, Rhapsody in Blue came almost at the end of a long programme, but the sound of the clarinet glissando woke everyone up with a thrill, and it has been thrilling people ever since. George Gershwin (born Jacob Gershowitz, of Russian and Lithuanian parents) left school early to write songs and work as a ‘song plugger’, a profession which no longer exists. A song plugger was employed by a music store to sit at the piano, demonstrating the latest songs so that customers would be seduced into buying the sheet music (and maybe a piano too). Gershwin was a brilliant young pianist and improviser, adept at turn-of-the-screw modulations which increased the excitement from verse to verse (a skill he deployed in Rhapsody in Blue). Already at the age of twenty he had written – allegedly in ten minutes, on a Manhattan bus – the song Swanee, made famous by Al Jolson, which earned Gershwin a lot of money. In 1924 when Whiteman asked him for a new piece for the concert in Aeolian Hall, public transport inspired him yet again: on a train to Boston, the rhythm of the wheels clickety-clacking over the tracks (another lost sound, alas) worked on his imagination and he suddenly ‘saw’ the whole Rhapsody in front of him. Interestingly, at that point he didn’t have any ideas for the themes – it was the structure he ‘saw’ (just as Ravel did with his Piano Trio). 314


The structure has in fact been judged one of the weaker aspects of the Rhapsody, which is more like a collection of ‘scenes’ – a characteristic that has lent itself to the many cuts and changes to which the work has been subjected over the years. Even at the first performance, Gershwin was still figuring out how long some of his piano cadenzas would be – the conductor’s score contains the instruction ‘Wait for nod’ (which reminds one of Mozart and his last-minute improvisations as a concerto soloist). Whatever the perceived shortcomings of the Rhapsody’s form, the strength of its themes has kept it triumphantly standing, and it’s hard to believe they weren’t the first things Gershwin thought of. Why ‘Rhapsody in Blue’? Gershwin’s brother Ira, the lyricist of their fraternal songwriting duo, came up with the words on this occasion too. Ira had been to an exhibition of paintings by Whistler, and had been taken with one called Nocturne in Black and Gold. How about Rhapsody in Blue for George’s jazz concerto? It was evocative, and it neatly alluded to ‘the blues’ of the jazz world. There are several stirring, memorable themes in the Rhapsody – firstly, the clarinet solo at the beginning, which immediately announces the ‘blues’ element by introducing the flat seventh (and the flat sixth too) and a mixture of major and minor thirds. Perhaps Gershwin’s fondness for Romantic piano repertoire taught him to derive new themes from old ones as he does here – the faster-moving second theme is built out of the first, and when the piano enters it is with a newsounding ‘commentary’ which also proceeds from what has gone before – as well as apparently quoting Gershwin’s celebrated song, The Man I Love, written that same year. The pianist mulls over these themes in virtuoso solo passages, arriving eventually at a new and jaunty repeated-note theme in C major, which the pianist decorates in a manner reminiscent of ‘novelty piano’ (Zez Confrey’s style). Next comes a more active theme in G, whose rhythm (as we later realise) foreshadows the rhythm of the big romantic theme that is to come later. It passes through some intriguing Lisztian modulations (e.g. G major to D flat major, not a conventional move) to usher in a slower, more playful section in which the pianist muses on the second theme from the opening section. The song plugger’s armoury comes in useful as the tension is jacked up in small increments to prepare for the return of 315


the opening theme, now in C major with the orchestra playing the theme and the pianist frolicking about in the treble with Chico Marx-style insouciance. A longish piano cadenza, based in the key of G major, prepares our ears for the big new theme we sense is coming. When it does, the gorgeous sideways glide into E major is one of the most melting moments in the piece. The big theme, announced by the orchestra, is like something Rachmaninoff might have written – a nod to Gershwin’s Russian heritage, perhaps. Skilfully, Gershwin uses the rhythm the pianist has been chewing over for several pages, but takes it down to half speed and gives it a different melodic profile, crucially with an octave drop between its third and fourth notes, making it a pleasure to sing (or play). In the second ‘verse’, the pianist accompanies the orchestra with a jazzy counterpoint to the glorious theme. This has proved tricky for pianists to get right in performance, because if the orchestral theme is too indulgently slow, the jazzy counterpoint will be leaden. Gershwin himself solves the conundrum (on his 1924 recording) by speeding up at exactly this point to create a lively atmosphere for the piano figuration, and then letting the orchestra slow down again. What can follow such a high point of lyricism? Only something quite different, perhaps, and now the pianist announces a kind of scherzo, a playful section marked ‘agitato e misterioso’ – another outbreak of ‘novelty piano’ writing, this time with an almost Cuban rhythm. (Gershwin once commented that his piano style was tricky because he treated the piano as a percussive instrument.) Now the pianist surges forward, sweeping all the main themes virtuosically into the melting-pot. We seem to be hearing the main themes in reverse order, arriving all too soon at the reprise of the clarinet’s opening theme, grandly declaimed by piano and orchestra together in a manner that makes one see ‘THE END’ in huge illuminated letters across the screen in one’s mind’s eye. Gershwin’s own 1924 recording, one of two abbreviated recordings that he made, is a fascinating demonstration of how much styles have changed. Tempos are fast, sometimes surprisingly fast (though this may have had something to do with the attempt to fit the piece on two sides of a 78rpm disc). The opening clarinet solo is played by the original clarinettist Ross Gorman with more spice and tasty detail than one usually hears now (for example, ‘spitting out’ the short detached notes). Notes are ‘bent’ by the wind players. Gershwin’s piano-playing is 316


brisk almost to the point of heartlessness – a characteristic also evinced by his fan Billy Mayerl, ‘the English Gershwin’. New York in the 1920s comes vividly to life; there is a tremendous sense of élan, of bustle and confidence, of what Gershwin called ‘our unduplicated national pep’.

IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882–1971) 94. Piano-Rag Music Igor Stravinsky wrote Piano-Rag Music in 1919 when he was still living in Switzerland after exiling himself there from Russia during the First World War. He later claimed that until the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet came back from an American tour with some ragtime sheet music to show him, he had never heard this kind of music performed. His claim is unusual given that ragtime had been quite a craze in Europe in the decade beforehand, and in fact had been around so long that it was already starting to be supplanted by jazz. Prior to settling in Switzerland, Stravinsky had travelled extensively around Europe, spending time in capitals such as Paris, London and Berlin, and staying in fashionable hotels on, for example, the Riviera, so it is hard to believe that he had never encountered ragtime in any of these meccas of entertainment. Even St Petersburg had hosted a visit from John Philip Sousa and his marching band in 1903 when Stravinsky was still living there, and they included ragtime in their programmes. The scandalous premiere of The Rite of Spring with its wild asymmetric dances had taken place in Paris in 1913, five years before Ansermet brought home the copies of ragtime from the United States. So perhaps Stravinsky was being slightly naughty when he claimed that ‘as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style, not as played, but as written’. Piano-Rag Music was actually the last of his experiments with ragtime, the others being the ragtime dance in The Soldier’s Tale and the Ragtime for Eleven Instruments. None of the three is a faithful homage to ragtime, Piano-Rag Music least of all. One of the most obvious qualities of ragtime is its steady pulse, but in Piano-Rag Music Stravinsky straightaway starts to play around with the beat; within the first few bars 317


he has departed from the four-in-a-bar time signature of the opening and has included bars of six quavers, five quavers and five crotchets. Syncopation is certainly there, but amid so much rhythmic displacement it hardly evokes the friendly syncopations of Scott Joplin. As for the generally plain and pleasant harmonies of ragtime, Stravinsky throws those out of the window straightaway, using instead a sour and dissonant style in which even the simplest passages are made to seem ironical by use of notes startlingly extraneous to the key. Stravinsky’s take on the cheerfulness of ragtime is a kind of mocking humour, and his capering rhythms seem jerky and awkward rather than innocently fun. With instructions like ‘excessively short and loud’, ‘attack [the chords] each time’, ‘triple forte’ and ‘staccatissimo’ he makes it clear that we are a long way from the saloons of New Orleans. Writing in two keys at once, interrupting jazzy passages with sudden brutal chords, constantly changing the time signature in a manner that would drive any dancer to despair – these show his wilful approach, and around the most difficult bar of the piece, where the hands compete for space in the same register of the piano with complicated syncopations, he draws little dotted lines and coldly writes ‘make sure all the notes are heard very clearly’. Not a very sympathetic kind of ragtime, then, but vintage Stravinsky, a sort of tribute performed in a frightening mask. Of Piano-Rag Music he said, ‘The different rhythmic episodes were dictated by the fingers themselves. My own fingers seemed to enjoy it so much that I began to practise the piano simply for my own personal satisfaction.’ It must be admitted, however, that in his own 1934 recording of the piece he adopts a somewhat slapdash approach, playing with élan but neglecting to follow some of his own instructions.

CONLON NANCARROW (1912–1997) 95. Studies for Player Piano 3a–e One of the wilder offshoots of ragtime and early jazz piano is the music written for player piano by the American composer Conlon Nancarrow. As a young man he studied with leading American composers Roger Sessions and Walter Piston, but in 318


his twenties he joined the Communist Party and went to Spain to join the fight against the fascist regime of General Franco. Subsequently, fearing harassment in his native United States because of his political beliefs, he went to live in Mexico and became a Mexican citizen. As Joseph Haydn once said about his own isolation in an Esterházy palace far away from the mainstream, he was ‘forced to become original’. Rather in the manner of Charles Ives, Nancarrow developed ideas about how layers of music moving at different speeds could be superimposed. Soon he began composing music too difficult for ordinary musicians to play. He began to teach himself how to write piano rolls to be played on a player piano, where he would not be limited by the speed at which ordinary hands could move around the piano nor by the inaccuracies likely to arise when musicians try to compute hugely complex simultaneous time signatures. He travelled to New York in order to acquire a machine that could punch holes in the paper of the piano rolls as he wished. He also experimented with changing the sound of the player piano by covering its hammers in felt or metal. Once he could create his own piano rolls he gave full vent to his imagination, constructing an eccentric and wildly excitable form of ragtime or boogie-woogie jazz piano, played by the machine at speeds beyond any that could be achieved by a real pianist. There is something extraordinary about seeing the keys of the player piano move on their own in his manic creations. Nancarrow was inspired by American composer Henry Cowell’s suggestion that, just as pitches can be organised into a rising scale, so time can be divided into finely graded steps and used like a ‘scale’ of another kind. The results can be heard in, for example, his Study no. 3, later combined with other pieces into the fivemovement Boogie-Woogie Suite (1949–50). Study 3a is a madcap dash through a composition which sounds like speeded-up Art Tatum. All five pieces draw on the vocabulary of boogie-woogie and blues, using self-contained lines which proceed in magnificent isolation from one another. The energy is infectious, but nuance was not Nancarrow’s thing; the player piano pieces tend to be insistent in tone. Sometimes the independent pulses seem disturbingly close to one another, as if there has been some slippage which the ear cannot quite grasp. There is often a feeling of mathematical calculation, which seems to work best when the effect is playful. 319


Later, Nancarrow moved beyond reference to the jazz style and created pieces which, if they were influenced by anyone, were inspired by J.S. Bach and his mastery of canons and fugues. Here again Nancarrow’s player piano allowed him to calculate mind-boggling time-gaps between the entry of one voice and the next. Written in the early 1960s, Study for Player Piano no. 21 (Canon X) is a terrifying piece which starts out by superimposing lines which mutually ignore one another and gets more and more complicated until it becomes a blizzard of different musical strata moving at incomprehensible speed. Some of his pieces have been arranged for ordinary musicians playing ordinary instruments, but they require great skill to play. Curiously, the effect of Nancarrow’s music being ‘humanised’ is not always as pleasing as one might imagine. The mechanical brilliance of the player piano performing rhythmic miracles with neither effort nor emotion seems to be an important part of the effect. Nancarrow was not widely recognised until his sixties, when recordings of his player piano pieces started to be made available by resourceful fans. In the 1980s he achieved a belated quirky celebrity, especially when György Ligeti said of him, ‘His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed, but at the same time emotional . . . for me it’s the best music of any composer living today.’

FREDERIC RZEWSKI (b. 1938) 96. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues Frederic Rzewski is an American composer and pianist of Polish heritage who is deeply interested in social justice. In the 1960s he concerned himself with electronic composition and minimalism, but later emerged from those ‘schools’ to forge his own style. He identifies himself with the struggle of ordinary people to achieve dignified working conditions. His best-known piano piece is the hourlong composition The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a huge set of thirtysix variations on a Chilean protest song of the Allende era. For me his most striking piano piece is the ten-minute Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues of 1979, which exists in the original solo version and also in the composer’s 320


arrangement for two pianos, which may be even more effective. The original song is a blues number which became popular in the 1930s at the time of the textile mill strikes in the American South (folk singer Pete Seeger recorded it on his American Industrial Ballads album). Winnsboro is a town in South Carolina where there were many cotton mills. Conditions for workers were harsh and became harsher when the government’s attempt to reduce working hours was met with cynical increases in production targets imposed by mill owners. Workers were subjected to so-called ‘stretch-outs’, meaning extensions of their working day without extra pay. In 1934, as part of a wider co-ordinated strike of textile mill workers, the Winnsboro workers rebelled and sat outside the mills refusing to work. Music played an important part in the strike; to keep up their spirits, they made up songs or refitted old songs with new words to reflect their situation. One of them was an older blues, The Alcoholic Blues, which the Winnsboro workers brought up to date with lyrics conjuring up the prospect of being worked to death and beyond: Ol’ man sergeant sittin’ at the desk The damn ol’ fool won’t give us no rest He’d take the nickels off a dead man’s eyes To buy a Coca-Cola and a eskimo pie I got the blues, I got the blues I got the Winnsboro Cotton Mill blues. Oh Lordy, Lordy, spoolin’s hard You know and I know, we don’t have to tell You work for Tom Watson gotta work like hell I got the blues, I got the blues I got the Winnsboro Cotton Mill blues When I die don’t you bury me at all Hang me up on the schoolroom wall Place a bobbin in my hand So I can keep on a-workin’ in the Promised Land



Rzewski’s brilliant idea was to use the piano to imitate the sound of cotton mill machinery. The first three minutes consist of clusters of black and white notes in the deep bass register in steady, implacable alternation. Low down in the bass we cannot discern the pitches with any accuracy, and it seems uncannily as if we are trapped inside the mill during a working shift. At first it seems as if there is no human presence, but gradually, lyrical fragments start to emerge (at this point there is a sequence of chords which recalls the opening of Rachmaninoff ’s Second Piano Concerto, but I have no idea whether this is intended to convey a metaphor or not). As the machines continue their shuttling, the tune of the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues starts slowly in the right hand. Before long, machines drown it out, though fragments of the song appear to be tangled up in the machinery. At the climax of this section, a crashing chord is held for a long time, echoing down the halls. Then, like a slow movement, we hear a gentle performance of the blues in the key of B flat. In the context, it seems fragile and touching. We seem to be far away from the mills, perhaps in a saloon bar late at night, drowning our sorrows. The song gathers force and at its peak we begin to realise that the rumbling of machinery has resumed. Now there is chaotic, dissonant counterpoint with bits of the blues theme being chewed up in the machinery of a fugue. (The sound-world of Charles Ives feels quite close at this point.) Again the mood changes; now we hear the whole of the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues declaimed cheerily in the treble with the machinelike figuration cannily transformed into a kind of boogie-woogie bass from which the ‘swing’ element has been scoured away. But the ‘break time’ comes to a sudden end as the tune is swept away by the sound of loud machinery, rattling on and on. For me this piece provokes all sorts of reflections on the piano, the pianist, the worker, and the role of the musician in society. The piano itself is a kind of machine. Looking into its mechanism is not utterly unlike looking into the machinery of a ‘spinning jenny’ as the early industrial spinning frames were called. Moreover, the repetitive and tedious processes of piano practice have something in common with the repetitive actions of machine work, even at the highest levels. Is it ridiculous to compare a professional pianist to a worker, or does it reveal something useful about the musician’s life which is usually hidden from us by the label of ‘art’? 322


The image of a formally dressed pianist at a grand piano in a concert hall is very far from the image of an industrial worker at a loom, and their working conditions are quite different, yet they share some elements. Both are making something beautiful for which they hope to be remunerated. The cotton mill strikes ultimately failed when production moved elsewhere. What if the same thing happens to musicians, when what they offer can be cheaply or electronically reproduced, when nobody wants to buy the laboriously hand-crafted version? Will anyone compensate pianists when their skilled job is taken over by robots? What is ‘protest music’ for musicians? These and other thoughts are prompted by Rzewski’s potent blend of lyricism and industrial process.




Minimalism and Historical Awareness


Many composers of the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries have written for piano and ‘prepared piano’, extending John Cage’s experiments. This repertoire, which has its own specialists, has been somewhat superseded by the development of the computer and all the effects which can be achieved electronically without the need to interfere physically with the mechanism of the piano. Today’s piano music is not united by the kind of shared musical language which composers of earlier eras used as their default starting point. Musical language and notation has become bewilderingly diverse; colourful graphic scores, designed to represent music in new and less prescriptive ways, could also function as little artworks. Some contemporary music may not seem like music in the traditional sense at all, but more like theatre, mathematics, or an art installation. There is an array of attitudes towards the piano, and towards pianists. Some contemporary composers seem to go out of their way to make it clear that they don’t see the pianist as any kind of Romantic hero, nor do they wish to continue the exhausting Romantic search for expression of the individual soul; this kind of contemporary music often seems affectless, deliberately not engaging with the emotions. Others have continued to see the potential of virtuoso piano music, now pressed into service not so much for exuberance and beauty as for the portrayal of contemporary anxieties and dystopian visions. Several of today’s most interesting composers have used piano music as an opportunity to reflect on the styles of earlier eras. A lot of the more popularly successful recent piano music has been concerned with evoking a peaceful, dreamlike state of ‘flow’, valued by those seeking escape from the pressures of modern life. This diversity of language and purpose is potentially enriching, but it is not yet clear whether music-lovers are really developing wider tastes, or whether each genre has its own specialised audience. As so often, the world of music mirrors wider society, which through the internet now has a vast range of references at its command, but often seems to polarise and break down into ‘special interest’ groups.



ARVO PÄRT (b. 1935) 97. Für Alina The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is currently the most performed contemporary composer in the world, and has been so for several years. His style is a unique outpost of minimalism, sometimes referred to as ‘holy minimalism’ because of its religious underpinning. Pärt began his career by writing in styles favoured by the Soviet authorities, but in 1960 he got into trouble with Nekrolog, the first piece of twelve-note music written in Estonia, which was criticised as showing ‘susceptibility to foreign influences’. Some years later he was again criticised for writing an overtly religious work, Credo. He then maintained a silence for eight years, during which he immersed himself in the study of early religious music such as Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. In 1972 he converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was another four years before he emerged from his silence with the first of the works which brought him to worldwide attention. This was his 1976 piano piece Für Alina (For Alina). Für Alina is an example of the ‘tintinnabuli’ style for which Pärt is famous. Tintinnabuli refers to the ringing of bells, a sound which has multiple meanings for the composer. The way that bells, particularly large ones like church bells, resonate has been of enduring interest to all sorts of people from musicians to scientists and poets. Bells can be ‘tuned’ like other instruments. Their characteristic shape means that when they are struck, their overtones are complex. The listening ear detects first a ‘strike tone’ and later a number of other overtones, some lower and some higher than the note first detected. In particular there is a ‘hum’ note which sounds an octave lower. In the higher overtones, the notes easiest to detect are the minor third and the fifth above the basic note of the bell. The prominence of the minor third in the bell’s acoustic cloud may be one reason why listeners often perceive bells as having something ‘sad’, ‘solemn’ or ‘mysterious’ about them. In the piano piece Für Alina, the bell’s overtones are explored in a very simple structure of just fifteen bars, notated in the key of B minor. No tempo is given, and the only indication of volume is ‘quiet’; there are no crescendos or diminuendos. 328


By contrast, the mood is specified with the words ‘Calm, exalted, listening in to oneself ’. Each bar varies in length, and contains only a few notes. First we hear two low Bs struck simultaneously in the deep bass, kept ringing by holding down the sustaining pedal. Then, in the treble part, a simple symmetrical structure begins, with bars gradually lengthening and then gradually shortening again. In the first bar there is a short note (its duration unspecified) and a long one. In the second bar, there are two short notes and a long one; in the third bar there are three short notes and a long one, and so on, up to the point where there are seven short notes and a long one. Then the pattern reverses, with six short notes and a long one, and so on, until there is just one short note and a long one. The final bar has a ‘coda’ of two short notes and a long one, perhaps a kind of ‘Amen’. Throughout, the left hand plays one or other note of a simple B minor chord – B, D or F sharp. The right hand (playing high up, and always coinciding exactly with the left) plays a kind of melody, formed of notes one might hear in the higher overtones of a bell (in this case B, C sharp, D, E, F sharp, G, A). The selection of precisely which left-hand note accompanies which right-hand note is carefully made, so that occasionally ‘dissonant’ intervals, such as a ninth (an octave plus one note), arise between them; these intervals provoke delicate overtones, more noticeable at a slow tempo. There is only one point, at the end of bar 11, where the bass note departs from its guideline and plays a C sharp, and it is at this point also that Pärt asks for the pedal to be lifted (to stop the resonance from continuing) and put down again in the next bar. In the context of very plain and simple harmonies, the use of a left-hand C sharp in bar 11 feels like a meaningful shift of focus, albeit for one moment only. There is some subtle calculation involved in exactly where this happens. The piece does not concern itself with the usual array of techniques with which composers and pianists demonstrate their expressive skill. It is the opposite of virtuosic, in a way which is both intentional and important. There is no opportunity for playing fast, loud, or showing mastery of emotional contrasts (in this way, Pärt has something in common with Satie). How then is a performer to approach such music? In writing it for piano, the composer must have considered that it might be played in a piano recital. Clearly the aim is to bring to the concert 329


hall the mystical experience of hearing, say, Gregorian chant sung in an ancient monastery where overtones linger in the vaulted space. Can such a thing be done by playing a few notes on the piano in a mindful manner? Does the spiritual meaning reside in the notes themselves, or must the performer think how to create a rapt atmosphere by means of body language, facial expression and so on? In one sense there is not much to the notes, but if they are unevenly or carelessly played, the effect will be lost. Quality of tone and of concentration are important, and these take skill. The piece encourages the pianist to think about what simplicity is, and how to achieve it. Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style draws on ancient elements that are part of heritages around the world. It clearly resonates with many listeners, particularly perhaps the younger generation who have been exposed more than most to formulaic electronic music, often greatly amplified. Many composers have tried to follow Pärt in evoking a peaceful meditative atmosphere which is far away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, but to my ears many of these imitations are less genuinely spiritual than Arvo Pärt’s. As the composer Steve Reich has said, ‘Pärt’s music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.’

PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937) 98. Mad Rush The American minimalist composer Philip Glass is one of the most successful and influential composers in the world today, his music familiar from his 1975 opera Einstein on the Beach and from films such as Koyaanisqatsi, The Hours, The Truman Show and Notes on a Scandal. Glass is a classically trained composer who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and counts Bach, Mozart and Schubert among his favourite composers. But in 1967, after hearing a minimalist work by Steve Reich in New York, he changed course. He simplified his style and focused on a ‘consonant vocabulary’, meaning harmonies which sound pleasant. His first minimalist works were not received with enthusiasm by fellow musicians, but he formed his own ensemble, started performing his music in New York lofts and quickly gath330


ered fans amongst visual artists, writers and rock musicians. After some years Glass felt that minimalism had lost its appeal for him, but without abandoning the style altogether he started to introduce new elements into it, calling it ‘music with repetitive structures’. Glass has always been interested in spiritual matters and particularly in Eastern religions; his opera Satyagraha focuses on Mahatma Gandhi’s early years and the development of his theories of non-violent resistance. He is also a supporter of Tibetan independence and of the Dalai Lama, who preaches social change through non-violent resistance. In 1979 Glass was asked to compose something for the visit of the fourteenth Dalai Lama to New York. Recalling this in later years, Glass said that the organisers were unsure exactly when His Holiness would arrive in the hall, so ‘I was asked to compose a piece of somewhat indefinite length – not actually a problem for me.’ This was a reference to Glass’s now-famous method of repeating blocks of material over and over again with small incremental changes occurring slowly – a method that can obviously be used to generate music of flexible length. His response was to write a keyboard piece which, on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s visit, had its first performance on the organ, this being the instrument in the hall. Later he gave it the title Mad Rush, though this had nothing to do with its original purpose. ‘For those interested in Buddhism,’ said Glass, ‘you might think of it as the interplay between the wrathful and peaceful deities.’ Mad Rush has become one of Glass’s signature piano pieces and has been recorded many times by him and other pianists. It demonstrates his characteristic combination of a detailed, intricately patterned surface bonded to simple underlying harmonies in units repeated in more or less moveable blocks. It has a threepart structure which he calls ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’, all closely related. Just a few chords are used, primarily chords of F major and A minor with occasional interpolations of G minor. Sparing use is made of added seventh notes, such as the note E in the F major chord, or the note F in the G minor chord; towards the end a D flat also creeps into the G minor harmonies. The listener’s ear holds on to the oscillating quavers on the notes A and C in the left hand; these two notes are common to both F major and A minor, and by restrained use of bass notes can be made to represent one or the other. After the rocking quaver motion has been established 331


in the left hand, the right enters with triplets, setting up a gentle three-against-two motion. A melodic fragment, F-G-F-E, drifts slowly through the bass from time to time. After a number of repeated sections, the rippling motion is intensified when both hands break out (loudly and at a slightly faster speed) into glittering sextuplet arpeggios, still elaborating the same simple chords. The performer must be on their guard here, because the rippling pattern is not always predictable; occasionally in the final bar of a phrase, fractions of extra beats are added, for example stretching a bar of twenty-four semiquavers to one of twenty-eight, an effect which causes the mind to do a tiny ‘double take’. In the ‘B’ section, things follow the same course, with some elisions so that the rippling arpeggios arrive sooner. Then the performer is directed to go back to the beginning and repeat the ‘A’ section again. In the ‘C’ section, or ‘Coda’, things calm down. The gentle quaver motion reasserts itself, and this time, as the melodic fragments drift through the left hand, they are answered by rising fragments of an A minor chord – octaves of A-C-E – drifting upwards through the treble region. The end, when it comes, seems arbitrary: the pattern is simply cut by an invisible editor’s scissors. This sort of music raises the question of what music is and what it is supposed to do. There are many kinds of music around the world which explore the idea of slowly changing patterns and aim to produce a meditative state of mind in the listener. In the great tradition of piano music, such patterns have been background, not foreground. In ‘music with repetitive structures’, as with a lot of minimalist music, slowly changing patterns are the whole point. Such music does not grab us by the heartstrings, but perhaps that is missing the point: peaceful immersion is the goal. As for ‘the interplay between the wrathful and peaceful deities’, however, one is left wondering whether this is a claim too far.

JUDITH WEIR (b. 1954) 99. The Art of Touching the Keyboard Judith Weir, currently Master of the Queen’s Music, is a British composer of Scottish origin (this is important to her). Although perhaps best known for her 332


operas and larger-scale ensemble works, piano music has been threaded through her composing career, partly because pianist friends (such as me) have prevailed upon her to write solo and chamber pieces for them. Weir’s piano writing seems to share some of György Kurtág’s playful, enquiring, irreverent approach to the instrument as exemplified in his Játékok series: imaginative and humorous, but ultimately serious in purpose. In 1983 Judith Weir wrote her piano piece The Art of Touching the Keyboard. Its title is what she calls ‘an over-literal translation of the title of François Couperin’s harpsichord tutor of 1716, L’art de toucher le clavecin’. Couperin’s work was designed to instruct keyboard players how to play his music with correct style, and he included an essay on how to ornament the lines tastefully. His music was, of course, designed not for the modern piano but for the earlier (plucked) harpsichord, and it is the harpsichord’s dry, precise and clear sonority that seems to lie behind much of Weir’s piano writing, as though she secretly hankers for the qualities that characterised Baroque keyboard music. In all her piano writing, she treats the piano as primarily a rhythmical instrument, preferring the ‘dry’ side of the sound spectrum to the ‘wet’ side – glorious, richly harmonised melodies and luscious pedalled chords – which became so popular in the Romantic era. The sustaining pedal is used judiciously for special effects. Rests and silences are telling ingredients of Weir’s piano music and, refreshingly, it seems that she pays as much attention to how the notes should end as to how they should begin. Weir has written a piano concerto: it is fifteen minutes long, with three short movements scored for piano and an ensemble of nine string instruments. She once said of it, ‘Ever since the modern piano was born, the composition of piano concertos has been on an inflationary spiral, and it is now a musical form associated with the crashingly loud side of music; which is not the kind of music I generally like to write.’ Her own piano concerto is, indeed, anti-show-off and is more like a quirky concerto grosso of the Baroque era (and perhaps a cousin of Manuel de Falla’s 1926 Concerto for Harpsichord and Five Instruments). The soloist generally plays with hands moving in unison or in parallel, often playing in the treble, and almost always coolly, interspersing the string phrases with objectivesounding comments and studiously avoiding vainglorious climaxes of the type 333


we know from the ‘warhorses’ of the concerto repertoire. In fact the endings are often deliberately thrown away, like a comedian with an exceedingly dry delivery (the end of the third movement is a case in point with its final ‘wrong-note’ chord almost like someone sticking their tongue out at the audience, pleased to have confounded their expectations). Here again it seems as if the composer might have been envisaging the piano as an over-dimensional harpsichord. The Art of Touching the Keyboard is, in homage to Couperin, a compendium of ways to touch the piano keys ‘from the gentlest of strokes to the most vicious of blows’, as Weir says. Unusually for solo piano music the sustaining pedal is rarely used, and in almost every bar there are rests, which aerate the texture and force the pianist to be constantly attentive to how to strike the next note. The piece begins with the player touching single keys tentatively and ends ten minutes later with the same keys played in a ‘confident and relaxed’ manner. From the cautious opening, the pianist begins to add little feathery grace notes around the melody notes, and then more elaborate rhythmic figures, increasing in volume. As in Weir’s piano concerto, the pianist’s hands generally move in parallel motion, and their sphere of action is usually the mid-to-high regions of the piano. Sometimes they divide a spidery line of delicate figuration between them, but rarely combine to produce rich and complex textures; now and then there is a ‘Romantic’sounding bar, for example one with a nine-note chord directed to be sustained with the pedal for a whole bar, marked ‘luxurious’ (which seems ironical). In the middle of the piece, a quiet chordal passage evokes a different style of writing, perhaps that of Brahms. This is followed by the direction to put down the ‘una corda’ (‘soft’) pedal. This effect is held for an unusually long time while the piano holds a restless debate with itself; quiet chords are interrupted by loud glissandos, long chords in one hand are played short in the other hand; chords jump about in a skeletal jig. The soft pedal comes up, and for a moment it seems that a melodic theme may be ushered in, but although it makes several attempts it is drowned out by rhythmical chattering, the hands still moving in rhythmic unison (‘nervous and disjointed’). Through the chattering it seems as if words may be being spoken, or rather muttered. The closest we come to a traditional melodic theme is the dance334


like passage marked ‘with urgency’; a fragment of melody is heard in the right hand while the left begins to rumble. The urgency increases and the rumbling gets louder and more brutal before fading away again. Six bars of precisely notated silence follow, and then the coda (‘pp, with a veiled tone’). Again a hint of Brahms seems to flit through the pedalled chords, which grow in richness and complexity. Is there to be a Romantic ending after all? No; the pedal is lifted, a naked F breaks rudely through the dream, and the pianist ends with three short, simple B major chords marked ‘confident and relaxed’.

THOMAS ADÈS (b. 1971) 100. Three Mazurkas Chopin’s mazurkas are a nostalgic tribute by a Polish exile to a form of dance music popular in his beloved homeland. The mazurka has roots in village life, but Chopin’s mazurkas took them out of the village and into the elegant salons of the nineteenth century. In Poland the mazurka can be slow or fast, and Chopin’s mazurkas illustrate both kinds. Chopin of course was one of the leading composer-pianists, and Thomas Adès is a modern example. Adès himself has said that he is a composer first and foremost and that ‘when you come to see me play the piano, you’re seeing a composer who is a pianist’. This sounds as if it might be an excuse for disappointing piano skills, but nothing could be further from the truth: Adès is a renowned pianist. So it is fascinating to see what a composer-pianist of the twenty-first century does when he is invited to look at some of the piano pieces of Chopin from almost two hundred years earlier. Adès was asked to write something for Emanuel Ax to play during Chopin’s bicentenary celebrations in 2010. His response was Three Mazurkas, a kind of double refraction of the mazurka as seen by Chopin as seen by Adès. Just as Chopin took the mazurka out of the fields and into the salon, Adès seems to have taken the mazurka out of the salon and into the realm of space-age fantasy. The characteristic rhythms of the mazurka are still there, though not all the time; Adès 335


also keeps Chopin’s ‘rubato’ style, meaning a gentle flexibility of tempo around the beat. The melodic shapes of Chopin’s mazurkas are there too, though elongated and distorted so that occasionally it feels as if we are watching Chopin in one of those crazy mirrors which bend and stretch familiar outlines. Adès’s first Mazurka is in the key of A minor, the key of some of Chopin’s loveliest and saddest mazurkas. The dotted-rhythm first beat and two following crotchets are familiar, and so is the ‘travelling’ melodic line, swooping easily up and down across the octaves with ornaments reminiscent of Chopin’s. At first glance Adès’s use of wide intervals may seem un-Chopin-like, but actually Chopin made wonderfully effective use of wide intervals when he wanted to introduce piquancy into the melodic line, as in his famous B flat Mazurka, op. 7 no. 1, where the melody line contains lots of drooping sevenths or ninths, and the middle section ‘sotto voce’ makes great play with the dissonant interval of a ninth. Chopin’s drone bass in this middle section also finds an echo in the middle section of Adès’s first mazurka. The reprise in the Adès sees the mazurka theme bent this way and that in volatile changes of time signature including bars of 5/8 and 2/4 within the triple time. The second mazurka is headed with the interesting instruction ‘prestissimo e molto espressivo’ (extremely fast and very expressive), two qualities which might seem to contradict one another but can produce an unusual effect. Chopin has only one mazurka marked ‘Presto ma non troppo’ – the E flat minor, op. 6 no. 4. Probably one should not look for close correspondence between Chopin’s mazurkas and Adès’s, but Chopin’s E flat minor mazurka has the same restless sequence of descending melodic phrases repeating constantly, as though trapped in a bubble. (A similar effect can he heard in another fast mazurka, Chopin’s C major, op. 7 no. 5, with its mysterious instruction to repeat ‘without end’, and the final chromatic section of the D major mazurka, op. 33 no. 2, is another which might have provided grist for the mill.) In Chopin’s E flat minor mazurka there are only a couple of triplets, but triplets are the focus of Adès’s second mazurka. The left hand plays six-bar phrases which start high and descend in crotchets before hiking themselves up and doing it all again on slightly different pitches. Meanwhile the right hand dances crazily 336


about in triplets and quavers whose rhythms are blurred by tiny obsessive mordents (little decorative ‘snaps’) on many of the notes. The loud middle section, marked ‘boisterously’, reverses the melodic trend, this time with short phrases striving repeatedly to make their way upwards against a clumsy rhythmic bass which keeps switching from 3/4 to 2/4 and back. In the reprise, the left hand is pulled into the right hand’s orbit, abandoning its plain statement of the beats and becoming intoxicated with offbeat rhythms. The third mazurka (‘Grave, maestoso’) is of the melancholy kind, and is in fact much graver than any of Chopin’s, as if it is a kind of ‘tombeau’ or memorial tribute. Its texture is much sparer than the other two mazurkas – single notes, spaced widely apart in both hands, are placed with solemn care almost like a piece of Arvo Pärt’s. Eventually, a third line arises, with a dotted rhythm, threading its way between the hands while the slow notes continue. The middle section takes up a faster tempo and an ethereal quality, directed to be played ‘pppp’ (very, very, very quietly). Is there an echo of the equivalent section of Chopin’s A minor mazurka, op. 17 no. 4? In the reprise, we hear again the two slender lines in the high treble and the bass, but this time there is more going on in the middle register between the two: not only the dotted rhythm motif, but now also a stately descending line in crotchets, proceeding implacably through the texture from the treble to the baritone region where it merges with the slowly tolling notes of the deep bass. The piece ends on that most unsettling of intervals, the tritone (three whole-tone steps), in this case a high E in the right hand and a low B flat in the bass. Some of Chopin’s mazurkas end inconclusively – the A minor, op. 17 no. 4, for instance – or they end surprisingly, like the D major mazurka, op. 33 no. 2, which ends with a modal scale (incorporating that same strange tritone interval) flying up into the ether. And there is the poignantly unfinished wistful mazurka in F minor, op. 68 no. 4, reconstructed from manuscript pages found among Chopin’s possessions after his death – perhaps this was in Adès’s mind too, for at the end of his third mazurka he seems to take his hands off the keys as if saying, ‘No one knows what comes next.’




Where is Piano Music Heading?


In the new millennium, piano music – or at least some of it – has been taking a new direction. Composers of the younger generation have spoken of feeling that we had reached ‘peak complexity’ with the piano music of, for example, Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy. In contemporary music circles it seemed for a while as though only tough, uncompromising modernism with a challenging attitude could really count as serious music. While certain modernist composers and their adherents were insistent that people needed to get used to and learn to like this kind of music, it’s probably fair to say that the general public was never convinced. As the twentieth century progressed, more and more of a split seemed to open up between ‘contemporary music’ on the one hand and ‘commercial music’ on the other. Serious contemporary music received backing from (for example) broadcasting organisations, Arts Councils and university music courses, but remained a specialist field. Some professional performers would go to tremendous lengths to learn the latest intellectually rigorous or graphically adventurous pieces of music, while others, perhaps the majority, sighed when they had to engage with new music which they knew would take forever to learn and would probably be received glumly by non-specialist audiences. In my own experience, which I could summarise as a modest but ongoing effort to learn new music, I could not help feeling sad that its complexity and the time it took to practise and rehearse were rarely matched by the enthusiasm of the audience’s response. There were exceptions, but they were rare. To many of us it felt that one could not go much further in the direction of daunting complexity; clearly the time was ripe for some sort of change in the weather, but from which direction would it come? Back in the 1960s and 1970s the American minimalists showed one possible way to attract the attention of a new audience with simple but engaging ‘repetitive structures’ (as Philip Glass termed his music) which co-opted Eastern philosophies in support of their tranquil enjoyment of the present moment. In their wake came a younger generation of composers who wanted to build on the minimalists’ achievements, incorporating new and diverse influences. These influences reflected the fact that music was more and more widely available through digital streaming services and could be accessed as easily by a music fan in Lagos, Tokyo or Reykjavik as by one in New York or Berlin. 341


Many people now get their exposure to classical music through film and television. Knowing how big the audience is, a lot of composers aspire to write film scores or music for advertisements. Certain pieces of classical music are now identified on playlists as being ‘from the movie such-and-such’, although this claim would have surprised Mozart (Elvira Madigan, The Shawshank Redemption), Beethoven (A Clockwork Orange, The King’s Speech), Wagner (Apocalypse Now, Melancholia), Rachmaninoff (Brief Encounter, Shine), Chopin (The Pianist, Little Women), or Samuel Barber (The Elephant Man, Platoon). Some composers from before the age of film even have their own ‘filmography’ pages listing their ‘soundtracks’. They might have been further surprised to find that their piano pieces are classified as ‘songs’, a catch-all term which has made its way into the vocabulary of piano students. Another new factor in how people like to listen to music was the rise of stadium concerts attended by huge audiences. Amplification allowed single artists (including pianists) and small groups of musicians to convey their music to the very back of the stadium. Those who couldn’t be physically present could often stream a concert to their phones or other devices wherever they were in the world. Gradually this has created a sense of the audience as a vast and multicultural group which feels itself to be a community of some kind, even if bonded only by social media. (During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, when live music events disappeared, this sense of a community was heightened – and perhaps even strengthened by the fact that there was no division between the privileged ones who were really there at the live performance and those who were only able to listen remotely; during lockdown, everyone was listening to the same streamed event.) Importantly, this community is not drawn from a single tradition or musical heritage, but sees itself as open to other influences and understands the wish and need of minority groups to be included. In turn this has changed composers’ perceptions of who and where their listeners are. Composers have used computer technology to produce all sorts of effects impossible for an ordinary pianist to produce. The basic sound of the piano can be synthesised and used to ‘play’ any piece of piano music, though anyone with 342


experience of the real thing is likely to be discontented with the result. For this kind of technology-generated piano music, no physical interaction with a piano is necessary and no human being need be present. It has found a home in computer gaming, but as yet it feels as if it inhabits a different sphere of activity to the one that most ‘acoustic’ pianists interact with. More and more examples of piano music on the internet are supplied by computer programmes, a worrying development for human pianists who fear that people will get used to the uninflected piano sound characteristic of computer piano-playing and start considering it iconic. The digital piano has become more and more common and is now the default choice for city dwellers living in apartments, but the acoustic piano still retains its allure. Electronic keyboards are often used at non-classical events, but when a solo artist from the pop/rock world wants to accompany themselves on the piano in a prestigious venue, they generally choose to play a grand piano. Its distinctive curved shape has cachet. Playing a grand piano has become the equivalent of putting on a dinner jacket or a posh gown for a special occasion – a dignified choice with historical resonance. Many students now leave school without having encountered much of the classical repertoire unless their parents choose to pay for private lessons, usually outside the main school curriculum and often outside the school altogether. Young music fans are raised on a diet of pop music and music composed for computer games. However, the pressures of modern life have left many people feeling that they need some kind of music which creates a feeling of calm and a contemplative space. Pop is often too hectic, dance music too insistent. They are bored with needing special ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones to attend stadium concerts. They’re not sure if it’s good for them to feel their hearts jumping in their ribcage because of the sheer volume. Classical music already has a huge repertoire which could fulfil the need for beautiful, contemplative music, but this resource is only useful to people who are aware that it exists. And, sadly, it seems that many are not, because it is not offered to them as part of their core education. Lacking awareness of what’s already there, many have turned instead to a new crop of pieces designed to fulfil the desire for ‘mindful’ music. 343


AMBIENT MUSIC When Erik Satie honed his neutral, pared-back style of piano music in late nineteenth-century Paris, he was considered eccentric. We can now see that his music inspired later composers to emulate his conscious disengagement from the hurlyburly of city life. Works such as his Gymnopédies for solo piano have enjoyed a new surge of popularity in the twenty-first century. Satie said he wanted to write pieces which were ‘melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself ’. It’s interesting that he chose to write these pieces for the piano, which has often been used to symbolise the solitary individual, musing on life. A glance at the score of Satie’s Gymnopédies will show how similar they are to many of the pieces which today fill albums of ‘contemporary piano music’. This new piano music hovers somewhere between pop and minimalism. It is sometimes called ‘ambient’, meaning that atmosphere is more important than structure or musical development. Actually, the whole of classical music is scattered with examples of such pieces, but they generally play a role within a larger context. (For example, the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata with its rolling melancholy arpeggios and its simple slow-moving theme might almost be an eerie and brilliant anticipation of ambient piano music.) When ambient music became a genre of its own in the mid-twentieth century, an influential example was Terry Riley’s 1964 composition In C, which uses repetitive patterns and principles learned from Indian classical music. Another pioneering work was Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports of 1978. Its composer wrote in the liner notes that ‘Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.’ Michael Nyman has written a great deal of minimalist film music which has drawn large audiences to the concerts of his Michael Nyman Band. Nyman is a pianist himself and his film music has supplied pianists with some very popular pieces such as The Heart Asks Pleasure First, minimalist music crossed with Scottish folk song. Amongst younger composers, Max Richter, Nils Frahm and 344


Ólafur Arnalds have all attained cult status with their partly acoustic, partly electronic keyboard music used in films, dance, and collaborations with visual artists. The music of the Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi – who started out as a pupil of Luciano Berio – has been hugely successful in recent years, attracting large and respectful audiences around the world. Against the roar of acclaim, we sometimes hear the exasperated voices of music critics complaining that there is nothing there, that it is ‘clichéd and shameless’, as The Guardian found when Einaudi played seven sold-out concerts at London’s Barbican Centre in 2019. To any pianist with a wide repertoire, the simplicity of ambient music is indeed a little puzzling. Why are these composers restricting themselves to such a simple vocabulary? Don’t they know what can be done with a piano? Are they pretending to know nothing about the rich heritage of piano music? Their postminimalist piano pieces seem formulaic and sometimes even interchangeable. They are often at a dreamily slow tempo, with very simple melody lines or figurations based in the middle regions of the keyboard. Often they are based on just a few chords, generally in root position, the simplest form of the chord; chord sequences are repeated over and over again. To me, listening to them is often like waiting and waiting for the actual music to begin and then discovering that the piece is over. But the lack of complexity is part of the point. The simplicity is intended to tap into other, older kinds of music which excel at creating a ‘mindful’ atmosphere: mediaeval plainchant, for example, or any kind of chant used in religious contexts. In a sense, plainchant could hardly be simpler – single lines, small intervals, voices in unison, no harmonies, no chords, no insistent beat, lots of repetition, long flowing phrases which help the listener to sink into a state of spiritual contemplation. Despite its simplicity, its effect can be profound. Ambient piano music seems to inhabit a world which overlaps with this. It does not aim to over-stimulate, nor does it block out other things which are going on in the room. Students use it to create a calm background for studying; it is used in yoga classes, kindergartens, health spas, delivery suites in hospitals. From the comments left under YouTube clips of such music, it is clear that many people find it beautiful, restful, nostalgic and evocative, even spiritual. 345


One thing hasn’t changed, however: all the best-known exponents of such piano music are men. In a generation very sensitive to the marginalisation of women, this is perplexing. The ambient artist is often in priest-like black at the piano, dramatically lit so he appears to have some sort of aura. Perhaps the projection of such a persona is something which comes more naturally to men, or is associated with men by those designing the stage sets. At any rate, the stars of ambient piano are continuing a long tradition of male composer-pianists who were comfortable with ‘guru status’ – and in the meantime there is still a gender imbalance. One important point is that a lot of minimalist/ambient piano music is not technically difficult. Pianists who have trained for years to develop an advanced technique may look at such music with alarm, wondering what was the point of all their training if this is what ‘piano music’ means today. On the plus side, technical approachability brings such music within the grasp of many people who might otherwise be locked out of the piano repertoire. It enables more people to feel that they are pianists and can use the piano to make music, and this can only be a good thing. On the minus side, this kind of music lacks contrast. Yes, it is dreamy and calming, but will these qualities be enough for it to endure? Will listeners come to feel that its palette is too narrow, its challenges too easily met? If we as a society find ways of reducing stress and conflict, will the need for such music disappear? We don’t know the answers yet. What is certain is that piano music is in a phase of democratisation, opening itself to influences and philosophies which have particular meaning for our era.

OPENING OUR EARS TO A RANGE OF MUSIC Writing this book has reminded me that we respond to different kinds of music at different times. Perhaps we even need different kinds of music at different stages of our lives. Over the centuries, composers have produced music of every grade of difficulty, whether technical, musical or intellectual, and have always found listeners who were glad they had made the effort to express themselves in precisely 346


that sort of language. For every person who likes nothing better than to chill out to a cool Gymnopédie, there is another who is thankful that J.S. Bach exerted his imagination to the utmost in the Goldberg Variations. Listening to many different kinds of piano music, I have been struck by the fact that on some days a complex piece is just what my mind enjoys chewing on, while on other days the same complex piece feels slightly sickening. A simple piece may seem soothing on some days, empty on others. I can listen to a piece written yesterday and not have the faintest idea what the composer is trying to tell me. Sometimes, music from centuries ago seems just that, a faint message crackling through the air as it tries to reach me, whereas at other times it feels as if time could really be a spiral, enabling something from long ago to speak right in my ear and seem to be putting my very thoughts into words. A piece written by someone who ‘speaks my language’ may be reassuring, but I also long to hear what people are saying in other languages with other ways of interpreting the world. All this proves that we need a range of music, because we are wide-ranging people with lively imaginations. It also shows that nobody’s effort has been wasted when they have taken the trouble to express something in music. Even if a thought seems marginal when a composer first conceives it, it will seem central to someone who has been searching for an echo of their own experience and finds it in that particular piece. It takes a long time to write down piano music, but someone may be glad you did. Somewhere there’s a pianist who will relish the task of learning those notes – if not now, then tomorrow, and if not here, then on another continent. One pianist will thank you for writing something they can learn in an hour, while another will be glad to have a challenge that keeps them company for months. The range of music we have is not a dry historical archive – it is a treasury of human expression. Piano music is one of its glories. As a body of work developed over more than two centuries, piano music is surely one of the great achievements of any musical culture: probably no other instrument can or ever will boast such a fabulous repertoire. The piano was invented and developed in Europe, and European composers created a large part of its repertoire, but the piano now has worldwide appeal. The pressures of urban living have made digital pianos popular, 347


but the acoustic piano still has cachet in many countries and a whole new prestige in China, where piano manufacturers have sprung up to cater to the vast numbers of young people learning to play it. As new generations of pianists come into being, new music will be written for them; the repertoire will acquire distinctive voices from other parts of the world. As well as being installed in millions of homes, pianos have been carried into the jungle, into the desert, into forests, into the Grand Canyon; pianos have been put in pubs, street markets, railway station forecourts, in airports and on beaches. They have been piled up into ‘pianodromes’, bolted to the floor of cruise ships, and suspended in the air (not just when being moved into an upper-storey apartment). They have been brought into courtrooms to demonstrate music to judge and jury. Dummy keyboards have been taken on long voyages by concert pianists. ‘Piano black’ is a lustrous style of lacquer. Futuristic pianos with sweeping curves of plexiglass, touchscreens and LED-lit cases adorn the lounges of luxury yachts, though interestingly the shape of these designer instruments is based on that of the 300-year-old grand piano. The design of the piano keyboard hasn’t changed either. In the early days, the white keys were sometimes black and the black keys white, but in the nineteenth century this became standardised to the arrangement we know today. The classic pattern of eighty-eight notes arranged in interlocking layers of black and white keys has proved a brilliant solution to making the twelve semitones of the octave available within the span of the average hand. If the eighty-eight keys were side by side in a long row, an octave would be too wide for the hand to stretch, and piano music would have evolved quite differently. Luckily, technology has not suggested a redesign. Pianists continue to move their fingers in the same patterns that Bach did, and to practise on imaginary keyboards as he probably did too. On that iconic layout of black and white keys, composers have superimposed patterns of mind-boggling complexity. These patterns are expressed in musical notes, but they also represent the spatial and physical movements required to play them, as well as the timing involved. As all pianists know, one can practise those movements without making a sound, and one can find oneself contemplating them as abstract patterns in their own right. Sometimes they seem to be silent 348


charts of time and space symbolising more than musical journeys. They have often made me think of the I Ching, the Chinese ‘Book of Changes’, an ancient method of divination which symbolises sixty-four basic situations of life in a series of hexagrams composed of six horizontal lines, unbroken and broken. Some of those hexagrams look uncannily like snippets of the piano keyboard. Looking at them has given me new insight into the deep processes going on when someone composes a piece of piano music. One could say the same of any music, but the completeness and complexity of piano music is special. A lot of piano music is played at home, but the piano is also one of the most successful concert instruments. In the hands of concert pianists the piano becomes an extraordinary amalgam of the personal and the public. On stage, particularly when it is the only instrument on the platform, the piano stands there like a challenge given physical form, and everyone in the audience has some inkling of the courage the pianist needs to walk towards it. Yet even the grandest of grand pianos does not lose its sense of being a mouthpiece for a composer’s inward thoughts, a way of amplifying them and broadcasting them to many people, each of whom has the sense that they are listening in on the composer’s private experience. The concert pianist is part of an intense triangle between composer, performer and listener. Take away the audience, however, and the pianist playing alone at home is still part of an intense conversation with the composer. The composer has provided the pianist with something to play, but it is the pianist who has the power to turn the musical template into sound. Composer and pianist may never meet, or even live in the same historical era, but their hopes are invested in one another. That is a rewarding relationship which for many pianists is one of the most enduring in their lives.


FURTHER READING It would be impossible to provide a comprehensive list of sources for a book like this. My thoughts about music have developed over a career as a pianist during which I have been inspired by great teachers such as Sándor Végh, György Sebők and György Kurtág, by fellow pianists, and by many colleagues from different countries. Each of them has brought new insights into the music we have played together. I have also developed my approach to both chamber and solo music through my own teaching and my students’ observations. I have described many of these interactions in my previous books, most recently in Speaking the Piano (Boydell Press, 2018). When it comes to the history of piano music and the biographies of composers, I have consulted a huge range of material available online. This includes composers’ scores and autographs, many of which are available on the IMSLP website, scholarly articles available through JStor, entries in Grove Online (the online version of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians), Wikipedia articles, some of which are detailed and scholarly (though anonymous), and numerous other websites. There are serious and scholarly websites devoted to several of the major composers. Many books on music are either written for people who are fluent in musical notation and terminology, or, if they are written for non-specialists, they skate round the difficult task of writing about the music. Here are a few distinguished examples that achieve this balancing act, and can be read for pleasure as well as information.

BOOKS DEVOTED TO SPECIFIC COMPOSERS Avins, Styra (ed.), Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (Oxford University Press, 1997). Bertensson, Sergei and Jay Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (Indiana University Press, 2009). Boulez, Pierre, Orientations: Collected Writings, trans. Martin Cooper (Harvard University Press, 1990). Not easy, but gives an insight into this ruthless and penetrating intellect. Cage, John, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Wesleyan University Press, 1961, 50th anniversary edn 2011). Chissell, Joan, Clara Schumann (Hamish Hamilton, 1983). Daverio, John, Robert Schumann: Herald of a New Poetic Age (Oxford University Press, 1997). Dobrzański, Sławomir, ‘Maria Szymanowska and Fryderyk Chopin: Parallelism and Influence’ (2001, Polish Music Center website: Duchen, Jessica, Gabriel Fauré (Phaidon, 2000). Duschesneau, Louise and Wolfgang Marx (eds), György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds (Boydell Press, 2011). Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher, as Seen by His Pupils (Cambridge University Press, 1986).


FURTHER READING Einstein, Alfred, Schubert: The Man and his Music, trans. David Ascoli (Cassell, 1951). Forbes, Elliot (ed.), Thayer’s Life of Beethoven (Princeton University Press, 1967). Hill, Peter and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (Yale University Press, 2005). Howat, Roy, The Art of French Piano Music: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier (Yale University Press, 2009); and for a more detailed look at Debussy’s methods, Debussy in Proportion: A Musical Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1986). Kirkpatrick, Ralph, Domenico Scarlatti (Princeton University Press, rev. edn, 1983). First published in 1953, this remains the liveliest and most authoritative guide to Scarlatti’s music and its context. Kurtz, Michael, Sofia Gubaidulina, trans. Christoph K. Lohmann (Indiana University Press, 2007). Layton, Robert, Grieg (Omnibus Press, 2010). Lockspeiser, Edward, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 2 vols (Cassell, 1962, 1965). MacDonald, Malcolm, Schoenberg (Oxford University Press, 2008). Morrison, Simon, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (Oxford University Press, 2009). Nichols, Roger, Ravel (Yale University Press, 2010). Pollack, Howard, George Gershwin: His Life and Work (University of California Press, 2006). Potter, Caroline (ed.), Erik Satie: Music, Art and Literature (Routledge, 2016). Radcliffe, Philip, Schubert Piano Sonatas (BBC Music Guides, 1968). Robbins Landon, H.C., Haydn: A Documentary Study (Rizzoli, 1981). A vivid and digestible selection from Landon’s pioneering four-volume work, Haydn: Chronicle and Works (Thames and Hudson, 1976–80). Roberts, Paul, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Amadeus Press, 1996). Selden-Goth, G., Felix Mendelssohn: Letters (Vienna House, 1973). Spaethling, Robert, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life (Faber, 2004). There are several large and small biographies of Mozart, but the most direct insight into his character is provided by this selection of letters, translated without the ‘tidying up’ of earlier editors. Suchoff, Benjamin (sel. and ed.), Béla Bartók Essays (Faber, 1976). Swafford, Jan, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Faber, 2015). Swafford, Jan, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (Norton, 1998). Swafford, Jan, Johannes Brahms (Macmillan, 1998). Tchaikovsky Research Website: Tovey, Donald Francis, A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas (ABRSM, 1999). Collected from Tovey’s commentaries to an edition of the Sonatas published in the 1930s, still full of valuable insights for the performer and listener. Tyrrell, John, Janáček: Years of a Life, 2 vols (Faber, 2006 and 2011). Walker, Alan, Franz Liszt (Cornell University Press, vol. 1, The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847 (3rd rev. edn, 1988); vol. 2, The Weimar Years, 1848–1861 (2nd rev. edn, 1993); vol. 3, The Final Years, 1861–1886 (1996). Walker, Alan, Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). Wolff, Christoph, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Oxford University Press, 2001). A detailed and scholarly biography, but also readable. Wigmore, Richard, Haydn (Faber, 2009). One of Faber’s ‘Pocket Guides’, with insight into a wide range of Haydn’s music. Wilson, Elizabeth, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Faber, 1994).

BROADER PERIODS Hamilton, Kenneth, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press, 2008). Isacoff, Stuart, A Natural History of the Piano (Knopf, 2011). Lyons, Len, The Great Jazz Pianists (Da Capo Press, 1989).


FURTHER READING Philip, Robert, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music (Yale University Press, 2018). Includes descriptions of concertos from Bach to Prokofiev. Rosen, Charles, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (expanded edn, W.W. Norton, 1998). For readers with some musical knowledge, this celebrated book is full of insights. Ross, Alex, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Fourth Estate, 2007). A brilliantly readable guide to the knotted confusions of twentieth-century music.

THE THOUGHTS OF MODERN PIANISTS Adès, Thomas, Full of Noises: Conversations with Tom Service (Faber, 2012). Barenboim, Daniel, Music Quickens Time (Verso, 2008). Brendel, Alfred, Alfred Brendel on Music ( JR Books, 2007). Brendel, Alfred, A Pianist’s A–Z (Faber, 2013). Hough, Stephen, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More (Faber, 2019). Monsaingeon, Bruno (ed.), Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations (Faber, 2005). Neuhaus, Heinrich, The Art of Piano Playing, trans. K.A. Leibovitch (Kahn & Averill, 1998). A classic source of inspiration for pianists by a great teacher, whose pupils included Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu. Page, Tim (ed.), The Glenn Gould Reader (Knopf, 1984). Schiff, András, in conversation with Marcel Meyer, Music Comes out of Silence (Orion, 2020). Tomes, Susan, Speaking the Piano (Boydell Press, 2018). The most recent of my previous five books.


INDEX accompanists 3, 207, 291, 300 Adams, John 286 Adès, Thomas 335–7 Three Mazurkas 335–7 references Chopin’s mazurkas 335–7 written for Emanuel Ax 335 Africa 259, 275 and jazz 291, 305 metallophones 276 African-Americans and bebop 304, 305 and jazz 5, 291, 301, 303 and ragtime 293, 294, 298, 299 and silent film pianists 311 and ‘stride’ piano 300 women pianists 311, 312 Alba, Duchess of (‘The Black Duchess’), painting by Goya 215 Albéniz, Isaac child prodigy 193–4 claims to have played to Liszt 194 Iberia 193–6 Debussy on 195, 196 evokes Andalusia and flamenco 195–6 Messiaen on 194 New York Times on 196 primacy of rhythm in 195 technical challenges 195–6 influence of French composers 194 influence of Liszt 194 influence of Spanish church and folk music 194 settles in Paris 194 taught by Felipe Pedrell in Barcelona 194 technical challenges 177, 195 Alcoholic Blues 321 Alcott, Bronson (father of Louisa May) and Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata 244 and Transcendentalists 244

Alcott, Louisa May and Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata 244 Little Women 244 Alexander II, Tsar of Russia 163 encourages piano manufacture 167 Alexander’s Ragtime Band (Irving Berlin) 296 Alexander Technique 307 Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung 69 Algeria 153 Alhambra Palace, Granada, inspires Debussy’s ‘La Puerta del Vino’ 203 Allende, Salvador 320 Amadeus (play and film) 45 amateur music-making see domestic musicmaking ambient music 344–6 and minimalism 344 audience for 344–6 Ólafur Arnalds 344 Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata anticipates 344 criticism of 345 definition 344 gender imbalance 346 influence of plainchant 345 Ludovico Einaudi 344–5 Brian Eno’s Ambient I: Music for Airports 344 Eno on 344 Niels Frahm 344 Nyman’s The Heart Asks Pleasure First 344 Max Richter 344 Terry Riley’s In C 344 Satie’s Gymnopédies the inspiration for 213, 344 simplicity of 345, 346 amplification 34, 282, 330, 342 Ansermet, Ernest, introduces Stravinsky to ragtime 317 anti-Semitism


INDEX Felix Mendelssohn suffers 97 in Mussorgsky 162 in Russia 162 Wagner’s 97 Apaches, Les, Ravel joins 228 Apocalypse Now (film) 342 Armstrong, Louis 311 Arnalds, Ólafur 345 Arndt, Felix, Nola influences Mayerl 296 Artôt, Desirée, affair with Tchaikovsky 165 Arts Council 341 Astaire, Fred 297 atonality and Berg 254 and Busoni 214 and Chopin 116 and Schoenberg 245, 246, 254 ‘Au clair de la lune’, quoted by Debussy 204 audiences and Balakirev 157 and bebop 304 and Beethoven 69, 72 and Brahms 141–2 and Cage 269 and Debussy 201 and Einaudi 345 and Bill Evans 310 and Field 104 and film music 342 and Kurtág 282 and Ligeti 272 and Liszt 134 and Mendelssohn 97 and Messiaen 266 and minimalism 341 and Nyman 344 and the pianist 349 and Poulenc 258 and preluding 112 and Rachmaninoff 225, 227 and Schubert 80 and Shostakovich 260, 261 and silent films 311 and singers 3 and Takemitsu 283 and Tchaikovsky 165 Chopin prefers private 110 Benny Goodman and the classical audience 250 in the modern world 327, 342 rage for Italian opera 194 reception of Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 142 reception of difficult modern music 341

stadium concerts 342 Auernhammer, Josepha 43 Austen, Jane 85 Austin, Lovie 311 Austria 78, 148, 149, 248, 171 Habsburg army and recruiting dances 42, 251 rules Bohemia 138, 170 Ax, Emanuel 335 Baba Yaga in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition 163 Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel 13, 17, 21, 22, 27–9 and Frederick the Great 27 as clavichordist and harpsichordist 27 autobiography 28 Burney on him as composer and improviser 29 esteemed by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven 27 Freie Fantasie in F sharp minor 27–9 on expressing feelings 28 on fingering 28 on improvisation 28, 29 The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments 28 works 28 Bach, Johann Christian 17 Bach, Johann Sebastian 11–23, 27, 28, 29, 182, 270, 330 Art of Fugue 13 cantatas 11, 21 character of his music 11–12 chorales in Busoni 215 in Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn 95, 96 in Kurtág 281 Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue 28 Clavierübung 17 compared with D. Scarlatti 24 counterpoint 11–12 craftsmanship 11 markings 17–18 Goldberg Variations 11–16, 22, 347 technical challenges 16 harpsichord versus piano 13–14, 16, 17–18 influence on Adams 286 influence on Bartók 286 influence on Britten 286 influence on Gubaidulina 286 influence on Henze 286 influence on Beethoven 76 influence on Brahms 145


INDEX influence on Bill Evans 308 influence on Kurtág 281 influence on Felix Mendelssohn 98 influence on Messiaen 267 influence on Nancarrow 320 influence on Rachmaninoff 226 influence on R. Schumann 128 influence on Shostakovich 263 Inventions 19 Italian Concerto 17–20 Mass in B minor 11 Musical Offering 13 rests 18 St John Passion 11 ‘Es ist vollbracht’ 29, 76, 96 St Matthew Passion 11, 16, 21 revived by Felix Mendelssohn 95, 97 Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord in E major 20–3 Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin 20 Partita in D minor, Chaconne, inspiration for Gubaidulina 285 tempo 18 transcriptions of Corelli and Vivaldi 17 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen 98 Well-Tempered Clavier (48 Preludes and Fugues) 11, 95 Bach, Maria Barbara (wife of Johann Sebastian) 27 Backhaus, Wilhelm, records Grieg’s Piano Concerto 178 Bad Ischl, Austria 149 Baermann, Carl pupil of Liszt 218 teaches Amy Beach 218 Balakirev, Mily 93, 155–7 as pianist 156 distrust of conservatoire teaching 155 influence of Glinka 155 interest in folk music 155, 156 Islamey, op. 18 155–7 Balakirev on origins 156 compared with Glinka’s Kamarinskaya 156 influence on Ravel’s ‘Scarbo’ 155 reception 156, 157 Tchaikovsky on 156 technical challenges 155, 156–7 music education 155 promotes Russian nationalist school 155 Tamara 156 teaches Mussorgsky 159 visits Caucasus 156

Banville, Théodore de, ‘Pierrot’ set by Debussy 208 Barber, Samuel 342 Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain) 194 Bardac, Emma affair with Fauré 187 Fauré writes La Bonne Chanson for her 187 marriage to Debussy 187 Bardac, Hélène (daughter of Emma), Fauré writes Dolly Suite for her 187 Bardac, Raoul (son of Emma) 188 Bardac, Sigismonde (husband of Emma) 187 barn owl, omen in Czech culture 193 Barrie, J.M., Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens Debussy inspired by Rackham’s illustrations 203 Bartók, Béla 247–52 admires Debussy 249 Concerto for Orchestra 250 Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano 250–2 Benny Goodman commissions 250 compared with Janáček 251 influence of J.S. Bach 286 influence of Bulgarian folk music 252 influence of Hungarian folk music 250, 251, 252 influence of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano 251 ‘night music’ 251 recording 252 rhythmic complexity 252 technical challenges 252 Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs 247–50 Bartók on 249, 250 no. 7 memorial to Debussy 249 influence of folk song 248–9 influence on Ligeti 261 music banned in Communist Hungary 271 ‘night music’, compared with Ravel’s ‘Noctuelles’ 219 researches folk song with Kodály 248 Basque country 231 influence of folk music on Ravel 232 Beach (Cheney), Amy 217–19 as pianist 218 child prodigy 218 Gaelic Symphony, op. 32 218 influence of Chopin 218–19 influence of Dvořák 219 influence of Gottschalk 218–19 influence of Grieg 219 influence of Liszt 218–19 influence of Mendelssohn 218–19


INDEX influence of Moscheles 218–19 limited concert opportunities 218 marriage 218 Mass in E flat major, op. 5 218 Piano Concerto, op. 45 218 struggle for recognition 217, 218 Sketches, op. 15 219 ‘Fireflies’ favourite of Josef Hofmann 219 inspired by Liszt’s Feux Follets 219 influence of Fauré 219 influence of Grieg 219 influence of Schubert 219 premonition of ragtime 219 taught by Carl Baermann 217 Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60 218 Beach, Dr H.H.A. (husband of Amy) 218 bebop see jazz ‘Beethoven Album’ 98 Beethoven, Karl van (nephew of Ludwig) 59 Beethoven, Ludwig van 3, 28, 59–77, 103, 155, 159, 182 and Archduke Rudolph 69, 71–2 and Carl Czerny 69 and his nephew 59 and Ignaz Schuppanzigh 59–60, 72, 74 and Napoleon 68 and religion 74 and the sublime 59 An die ferne Geliebte, op. 98, quoted by R. Schumann 122 as pianist 59, 65–6, 72, 74 as improviser 62, 66 as violinist 59–60 cadenzas 66, 70 campaign for statue 98 choice of keys 65 Choral Fantasy, op. 80 66 composing methods 64, 72 deafness 62, 69, 72, 75 death 87 difficulty of his music 63, 71 dynamic markings 70 folk music in 161 in films 342 influence 59 influence of J.S. Bach 76 influence of Haydn 39, 60 influence of Mozart 60, 61, 62 influence on Brahms 141, 143, 145 influence on Gubaidulina 286 influence on Ives 243 influence on Mendelssohn 98 influence on Shostakovich 264

late works 74, 98 Missa Solemnis, op. 123 74 order of instruments in duos 59, 147 Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, op. 37 143 Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, op. 58 65–8, 71–2, 141 influence on Shostakovich 265 Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, op. 73, ‘Emperor’ 65, 68–71, 72, 141 Piano Sonata in G major, op. 31 no. 1 65 influence on Schubert 89 Piano Sonata in D minor, op. 31 no. 2, ‘Tempest’, influence on Felix Mendelssohn 99 Piano Sonata in F minor, op. 57, ‘Appassionata’ 62–5 Piano Sonata in E minor, op. 90, influence on Schubert’s Rondo in A major, D951 85 Piano Sonata in B flat major, op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ 62, 278 quoted in Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata 243 Piano Sonata in A flat major, op. 110 74–7 piano trios compared with Schubert’s 81 Piano Trio in G major, op. 1 no. 2 65 Piano Trio in B flat major, op. 87, ‘Archduke’ 65, 71–4, 81 technical challenges 71, 72, 74, 81 Schubert on 81, 87 self-esteem 59, 74 Sonata for Piano and Violin in F major, ‘The Spring’, op. 24 59–62, 73 Sonata for Piano and Violin in C minor, op. 30 no. 2 70 Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, op. 96 65, 70 String Quartet in E minor, op. 59 no. 2, Russian folk song in 161 Symphony no. 5 in C minor, op. 67 66 quoted in Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata 243 Symphony no. 6 in F major, op. 68 66 Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 92 63 transformation of themes 72, 76 Triple Concerto in C major, op. 56 42 tempo in 60–1, 63–4 use of the piano’s tonal range 69 variations, seriousness of 98 Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61 100 Beiderbecke, Bix, influence on Ravel 235 Beirut, American University 222 Bel canto 103 bells, and Pärt 328 Berg, Alban 252–5 atonality 254


INDEX composition method 254 early songs 253 Lulu 253 Lyric Suite, and affair with Hanna FuchsRobettin 253 marriage 253 Piano Sonata, op. 1 252–5 detailed markings 254 use of motifs 254 private life 253 taught by Schoenberg 252 uses Schoenberg’s ‘developing variation’ 253 Wozzeck 253 Berg (Nahowski), Helene, (wife of Alban) 253 treated by Freud 253 Berg, Smaragda (sister of Alban) 253 Bergen, Norway 183 Bergman, Ingrid 178 Berlin, Germany 13, 28, 104, 317 Berio, Luciano 269, 277–9 as teacher 277 Sequenza IV 277, 278 influence of Stockhausen 277 Six Encores 277 Wasserklavier 277–9 influence of Brahms 278–9 influence of Schubert 278 influence of tradition of ‘water’ music 279 markings 278 originally for 2 pianos 279 title inspired by Beethoven 278 Bethlehem 266 Bible, the 3, 136 Billroth, Theodor, on Brahms’s Sonata for Piano and Violin op. 78 147 birdsong and Boulez 276 and Bill Evans 309 and Granados 217 and Grieg 182, 183 and Messiaen 267, 268 and Schumann 182 and Tchaikovsky 168 Biss, Jonathan, on Beethoven 89 Bizet, Georges 93, 157–9 arranges R. Schumann’s Studies for Pedal Piano for piano duet 157 as pianist 93 Carmen 157, 158, 159 admired by Tchaikovsky 168 compared with Schumann 157 death 158 Jeux d’Enfants 93, 157–9

‘Les Chevaux de Bois’ inspired by Schumann 158 ‘L’Escarpolette’ inspired by Fragonard 158 inspired by R. Schumann’s Kinderszenen 157 inspires Debussy, Fauré and Ravel 157 markings 157–8 technical challenges 157–8 ‘Le Volant’ compared with Schumann’s ‘Prophet Bird’ 158 Bizet, Jacques (son of Georges) 157 Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna, influence on Scriabin 219 Bley, Carla 313 ‘blind octaves’ in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 167 invented by Liszt 167 Blue Note Records 306 Bohemia and Dvořák 170, 171–2 and Smetana 138 character distinct from Moravia 190 ruled by Austrian Empire 138, 170 Bonaparte, Napoleon, and Beethoven 68 Bonnard, Pierre 227 Borodin, Alexander, befriends Mussorgsky 159 Bösendorfer pianos 33 Boston, USA 165 Boulanger, Nadia, teaches Philip Glass 330 Boulez, Pierre 274–7, 279 as conductor 274–5 attention to markings 275 attention to tuning 275 as mathematician 275 Douze Notations 276–7 Boulez on 277 composition method 276 influence of African music 276 influence of Debussy 276 influence of Messiaen 276 influence of Ravel 276 influence of Webern 276 orchestration 277 Piano Sonata no. 2 276 studies ethnomusicology 275 studies twelve-note music 275 taught by Leibowitz 275 taught by Messiaen 275 ‘total serialisation’ 277 Brackeen, Joanne 313 Bradley, Scott pupil of Schoenberg 247 uses serialism in Tom and Jerry cartoon 247


INDEX Brahms, Elise (sister of Johannes) 150 Brahms, Johann Jakob (father of Johannes) 142 Brahms, Johannes 93, 140–52, 270 as conductor 142 as pianist 141 chamber music 144 compared with Beethoven 147 compared with Mozart 147 compared with Schumann 141 composing methods 141, 147, 150, 151 devotion to Clara Schumann 142–3, 150 dynamic markings 144, 151 friendship with Joachim 146–7 horn played by his father 142, 148 ‘Hungarian’ themes 143 identified as ‘conservative’ composer 142 influence of Beethoven 141, 143, 145 influence of Clara Schumann 133 influence of early music 145 influence of Haydn 146 influence of Mozart 141 influence of R. Schumann 143 influence of Schubert 145, 146 influence on Berio 278 influence on Fauré 185 influence on Weir 334, 335 late works 149, 150–1 Lieder und Gesänge, op. 59, no. 3 ‘Regenlied’ 147 manifesto against ‘progressive’ school 146 meets Robert and Clara Schumann 140–1, 147 on Clara Schumann 142 on Dvořák 171 Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15 140–3 Clara Schumann performs 141 early performances 141 originated as sonata for two pianos 140 ‘unsuitable’ for women 142 Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, op. 83 34, 133, 143 Piano Pieces, op. 116 150 Clara Schumann on 150 Piano Pieces, op. 117 150 Clara Schumann on 150 influence on Berio 278, 279 Piano Pieces, op. 118 149–52 Clara Schumann on 150 piano quartets 184 no. 3 in C minor, op. 60 184 influences Fauré 184 Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34 144–6 Clara Schumann on 144

Hermann Levi on 144 Joseph Joachim on 144 originally for string quintet, then for 2 pianos 144 plays Liszt’s Piano Sonata 135 rhythmic style 145, 148 R. Schumann writes article on 141 Sonata for Piano and Cello in F major, op. 99 148 Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, op. 78 146–9 and Felix Schumann 148 based on ‘Regenlied’ 147–9 Billroth on 147 Brahms on 147 supports Dvořák 171 Brief Encounter (film) 342 Britten, Benjamin 286 Brive-le-Gaillarde, France 258 Broadwood pianos 33, 37–8 Brunhoff, Jean de, Babar the Elephant colonial issues 259 set by Poulenc 258–60 Brussels, Belgium 194 Buckingham Palace, London 94 Budapest, Hungary 194, 280 Franz Liszt Academy 271 Bülow, Hans von 116 plays premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 165 Burney, Charles, on C.P.E. Bach as composer and player 29 Busoni, Anna (mother of Ferruccio) 215 Busoni, Ferdinando (father of Ferruccio) 214 Busoni, Ferruccio 213–15 as child prodigy 214 as pianist 213–14 character of music 214 compared with Liszt 214 Fantasia after Johann Sebastian Bach 214–15 Busoni on 215 quotes ‘In dulci jubilo’ 215 influence of Liszt 214, 215 on practising 213 technical challenges 177 transcriptions of J.S. Bach 214 virtuoso technique 214 William Dayas on 214 Byard, Jaki 307 cabaret 201, 211, 235, 258, 260, 272 Cadenzas 66 Cage, John 268–71, 327


INDEX and chance 269 and silence 268–9 as ‘hippy’ 268 4’33” 268–9 influence of gamelan 270 influence of I Ching 269 influence of Indian philosophy 270 influence of Ives 243 influence of Richard Lippold 270 on mushrooms 269 on sound 269 Schoenberg on 271 Sonatas and Interludes 270–1 influence of Indian ‘rasa’ 270 ‘prepared’ piano 270 taught by Schoenberg 269, 271 canon 22 in J.S. Bach 15–16, 22 in Boulez 276 in Brahms 151 in Chopin 120 in Ligeti 273 in Nancarrow 320 in Ravel 234 in Schubert 83 in Takemitsu 284 Carnegie Hall, New York 250, 252 Carpathian Mountains 171 Carroll, Lewis, compared with Ives 243 Caucasus Balakirev visits 156 becomes part of Russian Empire 156 folk music 156 ‘oriental’ appeal 156 Chabrier, Emmanuel, Idylle influences Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith 300 Chadwick, George Whitefield 218 Chagall, Marc 263 chamber music 28, 35, 57, 93, 128, 133, 144, 250, 291 accompanied sonatas 40 Beethoven breaks domestic convention 71 Debussy on 207 importance of 3, 4 Kurtág coaches 278–9 Mendelssohn on 99 ‘not lucrative’ 185 Saint-Saëns champions in France 152 Schubert builds on Beethoven 77 see also individual works chance 241 and Cage 269 Charcot, Jean-Martin, teaches Nikolai Dahl 222

Chat Noir, Le, Paris Debussy frequents 211 Satie works at 211 Chausson, Ernest, influence on Albéniz 194 Cherubini, Luigi dedicates Fantasy to Symanowska 105 Chicago, USA 301, 311 World Fair 1893 293 Chile 320 China 283 popularity of the piano in 348 Chopin, Frédéric 93, 98, 108–21, 155, 197 as improviser 109–10 as pianist 93, 109–10 Ballade no. 1 in G minor, op. 23 110–12 inspired by poetry of Mickiewicz 110 Barcarolle, op. 60 279 character 93 Charles Hallé on his playing 110 compared with Field 103, 104–5 compared with Mozart 111 compared with Rachmaninoff 224 compared with R. Schumann 113, 125 composition methods 111 concerts 110 dislike of 93, 110 concentration on piano music 108–9 death 109 Éccossaise, op. 72 no. 3, compared with Szymanowska’s Anglaise in A flat major 107 Étude in C major, op. 10 no. 7, compared with Szymanowska’s Étude no. 3 107 Étude in F major, op. 10 no. 8, compared with Szymanowska’s Étude no. 1 107 Étude in E flat major, op. 10 no. 11, compared with Field’s Nocturne no. 7 103 Étude in C minor, op. 10 no. 12, ‘Revolutionary’, compared with Prelude no. 18 116 Étude in A minor, op. 25 no. 4, compared with Szymanowska’s Étude no. 12 107 exile 109, 118 fingering 114 illness 93, 109 improvisation 267 in films 342 influence of klezmer 118 influence of Polish dance 109, 118 influence of Szymanowska 107–8


INDEX influence on Beach 219 influence on Bill Evans 309 influence on Grieg 180 influence on Ligeti 261 influence on Clara Schumann 132 influence on R. Schumann 119 influence on Smetana 137, 138, 139, 140 Mazurkas 117–21 in E flat minor, op. 6 no. 4 336 in B flat major, op. 7 no. 1 119, 336 in C major, op. 7 no. 5 336 in A minor, op. 17 no. 4 119, 337 in B flat minor, op. 24 no. 4 119 in D major, op. 33 no. 2 120, 336, 337 in C sharp minor, op. 63 no. 3 120 in F minor, op. 68 no. 4 120, 337 inspire Adès’s Three Mazurkas 335–7 Chopin’s way of playing 117 Chopin encounters rural dancing 118 resemble Szymanowska’s 107 patriotic element 118–19 rhythmic character of the dance 117 R. Schumann on 119 Nocturne in E flat major, op. 9 no. 2 compared with Field’s Nocturne no. 9 103 Nocturne in A flat major, op. 32 no. 2 compared with Szymanowska’s Nocturne in B flat 108 notated instructions 111–12 on Field’s playing 104 on Clara Schumann 132 piano concertos 109 no. 1 in E minor, op. 11, compared with Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto 133 sends to Clara Schumann 132 Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, op. 35, funeral march 125 preference for salons 93, 110 pupils 120 24 Preludes, op. 28 112–17 compared with Debussy’s Preludes 200 no. 2 in A minor 125 no. 4 in E minor compared with Field’s Nocturne no. 14 104 compared with Hummel’s Prelude in E minor 114–15 inspired Jobim’s Insensatez 114 no. 15 in D flat major nicknamed ‘raindrop’ 116 no. 17 in A flat, compared with Mendelssohn 116

no. 18 in F minor, compared with Étude in C minor op. 10 no. 12 116 no. 23 in F major, compared with Szymanowska’s Étude no. 3 107 relationship with George Sand 116 R. Schumann on 119 settles in Paris 118 Szafarnia Courier 118 taught by Jósef Elsner 107 technical challenges 110, 115, 116 Variations on Là ci darem la mano, compared with Szymanowska’s Étude no. 12 107 Waltz in A flat major, op. posth., compared with Szymanowska’s Waltz no. 3 107 chorales Busoni 215 Debussy Kurtág 281 Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn 95, 96 Mussorgsky 164 Ciboure, Basque country 231 clavichord 2, 12, 40, 48, 105 preferred by C.P.E. Bach 28 Clementi, Muzio 37 Clockwork Orange, A (film) 342 Cocteau, Jean, drawing of Satie 210 colonialism, and Babar the Elephant 259 computer, role of in modern music 327, 342–3 conceptualists, influence of Ives 243 concerto grosso and Weir’s Piano Concerto 333 influence on J.S. Bach 17 concerts and ‘live’ music 177 and recordings 112 Brahms 141 Chopin 110 Einaudi 345 Kurtág 281, 282 Liszt 133–4 Fanny Mendelssohn 94 Mozart 33 Nyman 344 Rachmaninoff 224–5, 227 Clara Schumann 132, 133 stadium 342, 343 Szymanowska 107 Concord, Massachusetts, USA, centre of Transcendentalists 243 conductor Ansermet 317 Boulez 274–5


INDEX in Beethoven 67, 69 Mendelssohn 97 Ozawa 283 Rachmaninoff 222 role of in early 19th century 69 Smetana 138, 170 Talich 191 Confrey, Zez influence on Gershwin 315 Kitten on the Keys influences Mayerl 296 conservatoires Leipzig 97, 178 Moscow 155, 156, 164 Paris 104, 184, 197, 211 St Petersburg 155 contemporary music computer-generated piano 342 contemporary piano music inspired by Satie 344 demand for contemplative music film and television 342 influence of minimalists 341 multicultural community 342 reaches ‘peak complexity’ 341 stadium concerts 342 streaming 341, 342 see also ambient music Coolidge, Calvin 2 Corelli, Arcangelo 17, 20 ‘trio sonatas’ 20 coronavirus pandemic 342 Corea, Chick 207 Cöthen, court of, Germany 20 Couperin, François L’Art de toucher le clavecin inspires Judith Weir 333 influence on Debussy 199 ‘Le Tic-Toc-Choc’ 199 Cowell, Henry, rhythmic ‘scale’ inspires Nancarrow 319 Cramer, Johann Baptist 68 Cristofori, Bartolomeo 13 Cuba rhythms in Bud Powell 306 rhythms in Gershwin 316 rhythms in Joplin 294 ‘cutting competitions’ 299, 300, 302 Czerny, Carl 98 on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 69, 70 On the proper performance of all Beethoven’s works for the piano 69 plays Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto 69 piano studies 69

Dahl, Nikolai dedicatee of Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto no. 2 222 plays viola 222 studies with Charcot 222 treats Rachmaninoff for writer’s block 222 Dalai Lama 331 Danbury, Connecticut, USA 242 Davis, Miles 308 Dayas, William, on Busoni 214 Debussy, Claude 112, 196–210 and amateur pianists 202 and Impressionism 196 and World War I 207, 208 as conductor 202 as pianist 200, 203 Children’s Corner inspired by Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants 157 ‘Gollywog’s Cakewalk’ influenced by Joplin 295 ‘Clair de Lune’ compared with Grieg’s ‘Notturno’ 183 compared with Saint-Saëns 154 composition methods 196–7, 209 death 207 En blanc et noir, quotes ‘Ein Feste Burg’ 209 English love of Debussy 202 Estampes, ‘Pagodes’ 198 Études 206 Falla on his evocations of Spain 203 Golden Section in 196–7, 200 Roy Howat on 196–7 harmonies 197, 198, 199, 202–3, 204 Images, Series 1 196–200 Debussy on 197, 198 Reflets dans l’Eau 279 influence of Couperin 199–200 influence of flamenco 203 influence of Javanese gamelan 197–8, 200 influence of Joplin 295 influence of Liszt 134–5, 136–7 influence of Spain 203 influence of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring 202 influence on Albéniz 194 influence on Bartók 249 influence on Boulez 276 influence on Bill Evans 308 influence on Ligeti 261 influence on Messiaen 267 influence on Takemitsu 283, 284 interest in Rosicrucianism 196 late style 207 love of Dickens 202 love of England 202


INDEX Marguerite Long on his playing 201 markings 196, 198, 201, 203, 209 marriage to Emma Bardac 187 music repressed in Communist Hungary 271 need for precision 196 on Albéniz’s Iberia 195, 196 on Gluck 199 on Javanese gamelan 198 on music and mathematics 196–7 on playing the piano 201 on Rameau 199 on Wagner 199 ‘Pantomime’ (Verlaine) 208 pedalling 201 pentatonic scale 204 ‘Pierrot’ (Banville) 208 polytonality 202–3, 204 Preludes, Book 1 201 ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ 204 Preludes, Book 2 200–7, 210 ‘Bruyères’ compared with ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ 204 ‘Canope’, inspired by Egyptian urns 206 compared with Chopin’s Preludes 200 echo of Stravinsky’s Petrushka 203 ‘General Lavine – eccentric’ influence of Joplin 295 inspired by Ed Lavine 204 ‘Hommage à S.Pickwick’, inspired by Dickens’s Mr Pickwick 205 ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’ compared with Rachmaninoff 227 inspired by Rackham’s fairy illustrations 203 ‘Feux d’artifice’ influence of Liszt 206 inspired by Bastille Day fireworks 206 quotes La Marsellaise 207 technical challenges 207 many influences on 201 ‘Ondine’, compared with Ravel’s ‘Ondine’ 204 organisation by key and character 202 compared with Bach’s Goldberg Variations 202 ‘La Puerta del Vino’ evokes flamenco 203 inspired by Alhambra Palace 203 sonorities 200 ‘La terrasse des audiences’ inspired by report from India 204 quotes ‘Au clair de la lune’ 204 ‘Les tierces alternées’

compared with Études 206 evokes harpsichord music 206 quotes Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring 206 titles 201–2 ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ (abandoned prelude) 206 sonatas as ‘pure’ music 207, 208, 209 Debussy on 207, 208 for Cello and Piano 207–10 and ‘Ein Feste Burg’ 209 and Pierrot 208–9, 210 as ‘expressionist’ 208 compared with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire 208 compressed language of 209 Debussy on 208–9 influence of flamenco 210 Louis Roosor on 208 Moray Wesh on 209 Spanish character 210 influence on Boulez 276 for Flute, Viola and Harp 207 for Violin and Piano 207 homage to German culture 208 Suite Bergamasque, ‘Passepied’ influences Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith 300 technical challenges 204, 205, 206, 207 ‘tombeau’ in Revue Musicale 249 supports Satie 211 uninterested in virtuosity 201 Vlado Perlmuter on 196 Debussy, Claude-Emma (‘Chouchou’, daughter of Claude and Emma) 204 Debussy, Emma see Bardac, Emma Degas, Edgar 227 de Gaulle, General leads liberation of Paris 266 Messiaen on 266 Delage, Maurice 231 Denisov, Edison 264 ‘developing variation’ (Schoenberg), used by Berg 253 Dickens, Charles Debussy’s love of 202 The Pickwick Papers, and Debussy 202, 205 Dies Irae, in Brahms 151–2 dissonance ‘Emancipation of the’ (Schoenberg) 241 in bebop 305 Ives on 242 Döbling, Austria 64


INDEX Dobrzański, Sławomir, research on Maria Szymanowska 105 Doctorow, E.L., Ragtime 295 domestic music-making Albéniz’s early pieces for 195 and the growth of piano manufacture 167, 177, 180 and the piano 1–3, 40, 177, 349 attempting difficult music 177 Debussy’s Preludes 202 Grieg’s Lyric Pieces 177, 180 impact of recordings on 241 in Haydn’s day 40 Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor 48 relationship with virtuoso pianists 177 salons 185 Schubert 78, 84–5, 87 Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons 167 Domus (piano quartet) 97 Donizetti, Gaetano 194 Doppelgänger 125 Dresden, Germany 226 Dresdner Abend-Zeitung 126 duets see piano duets Dukas, Paul, influence on Chabrier 194 Dumka in Dvořák 171, 172, 176 in Smetana 139 duos (piano with one other instrument) 3, 20–3, 45–8, 59–62, 146–9, 207–10 order of instruments 59, 147 role of piano misrepresented 207 see also piano duos Dvořák, Antonín 170–3 as pianist 170 as viola-player 170 awkward piano writing 171 Brahms on 171 Humoreske arranged by Tatum 304 influence of folk music 172, 173 influence of R. Schumann 171 influence of Smetana 139, 170–1 influence on Beach 219 love of mountains 171 markings 171–2 on importance of ‘Negro music’ 304 piano quartets 93, 184 Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81 93, 144, 170–3 compared with Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet 171 cross-rhythms 171, 172, 173 earlier attempt at a piano quintet 170 folk-like themes 172, 173

influence of R. Schumann’s Piano Quintet 172–3 major/minor inflections 172 piano trios 93 in E minor, op. 90, ‘Dumky’ 171 opening inspired by Smetana 139 in F minor, op. 65 171 plays in dance band 170 plays under Smetana in Provisional Theatre, Prague 138, 170 resists move to Vienna 171 Slavonic Dances 171 struggles to balance German and Czech elements 171 supported by Brahms 171 Symphony no. 7 in D minor, op. 70 171 Symphony no. 8 in G major, op. 88 171 technical challenges 171, 173 wins Austrian state stipendium 171 Eastbourne, England, Debussy holidays in 197, 202 École Niedermeyer Fauré studies at 184 Saint-Saëns teaches at 185 editions Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants 157 by virtuosi 177 Chopin’s Mazurkas 121 Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K488 53 Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition 160 Scarlatti’s Sonatas 24–5 Einaudi, Ludovico, taught by Berio 345 ‘Ein Feste Burg’, and Debussy 209 Einstein, Alfred, on Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet 78 Eisenstadt, Germany 35 Elephant Man, The (film) 342 Elgar, Edward, Enigma Variations quotes Mendelssohn 127 Elizabeth Alexandrovna, Tsarina of Russia 107 Ellington, Duke compared with Scriabin 221 influence on Ravel 235 memorises James P. Johnson 300 on Marian McPartland 313 The Washingtonians 311 Elvira Madigan (film) 342 Emerson, Ralph Waldo against conformity 243 and Ives 243, 244 and Transcendentalists 243 urges American individuality 243


INDEX Empoli, Italy 214 Enlightenment, German 27 Eno, Brian Ambient I: Music for Airports 344 on ambient music 344 Erard pianos, favoured by Ravel 229 Esterháza Palace 35, 38, 41 Esterházy family 33, 35, 37 Ethnomusicologists 6, 275 Evans, Bill 307–10 Eyes Wide Shut (film) 272 Falla, Manuel de Harpsichord Concerto, compared with Weir’s Piano Concerto 333 influenced by Felipe Pedrell 194 on Debussy’s evocations of Spain 203 Fauré, Gabriel 184–90 affair with Emma Bardac 187 as pianist 186 Barcarolles 189 La Bonne Chanson, op. 61 187 Dolly Suite, op. 56 187–90 ‘Berceuse’ used for Listen with Mother 188 inspired by Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants 157 ‘Le Pas espagnol’ reference to statue of horse 189 tribute to Chabrier’s España 189 quotes Fauré’s Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 1 158–9 reasons for writing 187–8 ‘Tendresse’ compared with Poulenc 189 written for Hélène Bardac (‘Dolly’) 187 engaged to Marianne Viardot 185 influence of church modes 185 influence of Gregorian chant 184, 185 influence of Liszt 185 influence of medieval and Renaissance music 184, 185 influence of Saint-Saëns 185 influence of Schumann 185 influence of Wagner 185 influence on Albéniz 194 influence on Beach 219 late style 184 love of chamber music 185 marriage to Marie Fremiet 187 Nocturnes 189 on Saint-Saëns’s teaching 185 piano quartets 187 no. 1 in C minor, op. 15 184–7 influence of Brahms 184, 185 influence of Saint-Saëns 184 influence of R. Schumann 185

influence on Ravel 187 Marguerite Long on 186 revision to finale 186 piano quintets 144, 187 Piano Trio in D minor, op. 120 187 rhythmic style 185, 186–7 Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 1 in A major, op. 13 quoted in Dolly Suite 188–9 written for Paul Viardot 185 studies at École Niedermeyer 184–5 technical challenges 186, 188 Fauré (Fremiet), Marie (wife of Gabriel) 187 Fazioli pianos 33 Ferdinand, Crown Prince (later King Ferdinand VI) of Spain 23 Ferneyhough, Brian 341 Fibonacci sequence 114 Field, John 102–5, 107 as pianist 102, 104 Chopin on his playing 104 compared with Chopin 103, 104–5 fingering 103 Liszt on his playing 104 nocturnes first to write 102 used as slow movements 102 Nocturne no. 7 in C major 103 compared with Chopin’s Etude op. 10 no. 11 103 Nocturne no. 9 in A major 103 compared with Chopin’s Nocturne op. 9 no. 2 103 Nocturne no. 10 in E flat major 103 Nocturne no. 11 in E flat major 103 Nocturne no. 14 in C major 104 compared with Chopin’s Prelude no. 4 104 on Chopin 104 pupil and business partner of Clementi 102 settles in St Petersburg 102 figured bass 19, 20 fingering and women’s hands 6 C.P.E. Bach on 28 Debussy on 201 in J.S. Bach 12, 23 Finnissy, Michael 341 Flamenco evoked by Albéniz 195 evoked by Debussy 203, 210 evoked by Scarlatti 23, 24, 25–6 Flaubert, Gustave, Dictionary of Accepted Ideas 2


INDEX Florence, Italy 106 folk music Bartók records and transcribes 248 Bohemian/Czech 139 Caucasian 156 Circassian 156 Crimean Tartar 156 Hungarian 248, 250–2 gypsy music ‘mistaken’ for by Liszt 248 made available by recordings 241 Norwegian 178–83 Polish 108, 109 Romanian 248 Russian 159, 161 Scottish 344 Slovakian 248 Spanish 216 Ukrainian 165 Forkel, Johann 21, 22 Fragonard, Jean-Honoré, L’Escarpolette inspires Bizet 158 Frahm, Niels 344 Françaix, Jean, orchestration of Poulenc’s The Story of Babar the Elephant 258 France 33, 93, 106, 152, 184, 199, 208, 210, 231, 300 Franck, César, Piano Quintet in F minor 144 Franz Josef I, Emperor of Austria 253 Frederick the Great of Prussia 13, 28 free jazz 307 Fremiet, Emmanuel father-in-law of Fauré 189 sculptor of horse statue 189 Fremiet, Marie see Fauré, Marie French Overture 16, 17 Freud, Sigmund and Scriabin 221 treats Helene Berg (Nahowski) 253 Friedrich, Caspar David 59 Fuchs-Robettin, Hanna, affair with Berg 253 ‘galant’ style 17, 27 gamelan 275 at Paris Conservatoire 197 at Paris Great Exhibition 197–8 description 198, 230–1 influence on Cage 270 influence on Debussy 197–8, 200 influence on Messiaen 267 influence on Ravel 230 Gandhi, Mahatma 331 gender issues ambient music 346 Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto 69

Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 142 discouragement of women composers 5–6, 94, 131–2, 217–19 discouragement of women pianists 94 fingering and editions 6, 114 neglect of women composers 105, 108, 219 piano as instrument for young ladies 40 piano keyboard designed by men 6 Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 164 women and the drawing room 84 women in jazz 310–13 women’s rights, and Transcendentalists 243 see also women composers; women pianists; women violinists Genzinger, Marianne von 35 George V, King, Debussy and his installation as Emperor of India 204 Germany 20, 29, 95, 97, 106, 146, 178, 181, 248 centre of piano culture 93 Italian opera in 27 prejudice against Mendelssohn in 97 Gershwin, George 112, 313–17 as pianist and improviser 314, 316–17 I Got Rhythm 304 influence on Ravel 235, 237 The Man I Love 315 on American character 317 Rhapsody in Blue 313–17 clarinet glissando 314, 317 collaboration with Whiteman 313–14 influence of Zez Confrey 315 influence of Liszt 315 influence of Rachmaninoff 316 influence on Mayerl 317 structure and cuts 315 orchestrated by Grofé 313 Gershwin plays London premiere 297 Mayerl plays 297 recordings 316 title 315 song plugger 314 Swanee 314 Gershwin, Ira (brother of George) 315 Gillespie, Dizzy 306 Glass, Philip 286, 330–2 Einstein on the Beach 330 The Hours 330 influence of Reich 330 interest in Eastern religions 331 Koyaanisqatsi 330 Mad Rush 330–2 composition method 331–2 Glass on 331 inspired by Buddhism 331


INDEX and minimalism 330–1, 332 ‘music with repetitive structures’ 331 Notes on a Scandal 330 Satyagraha 331 taught by Nadia Boulanger 330 The Truman Show 330 Glinka, Mikhail 93, 107 interest in folk music 155 Kamarinskaya 155 Tchaikovsky on 155 originator of Russian nationalist school 155 Gluck, Christoph Willibald, Debussy on 199 ‘God save the King/Queen’, quoted by Debussy 205 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Faust 136 on Clara Schumann 131 on Felix Mendelssohn as a child 97 on Mozart as a child 97 on Szymanowksa 106 Goldberg, Johann 14 Golden Section in Chopin 114 in Debussy 196–7, 200 impossibility of hearing 200 Goodman, Benny and Szigeti 250 Carnegie Hall concert 250 commissions Bartók’s Contrasts 250 Orchestra 250 Quartet 250 Trio 250 seeks classical audience 250 Gorman, Ross 314, 317 Gottschalk, Louis, influence on Beach 219 Gould, Glenn 310 recordings of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations 14 Gounod, Charles, on Fanny Mendelssohn (Hensel) 95 Granados, Enrique 215–17 as pianist 216 Goyescas 215–17 compared with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition 216 adapted as opera 217 influence of Felipe Pedrell 194 influence of Goya 215–16 on Goya 215–16 ‘Quejas, o la Maja y el Ruiseñor’ 215–17 based on folk song 216 inspires Consuelo Velásquez’s ‘Bésame mucho’ 217 nightingale anticipates Messiaen 217

Gregorian chant in Brahms 151 influence on ambient music 345 influence on Fauré 184 influence on Pärt 328 Grieg, Edvard 178–84 and Norwegian nationalism 181 compares Danish and Norwegian characters and music 181 composition methods 179 influence of Chopin 180 influence of Liszt 178, 179 influence of Norwegian folk music 178, 180, 181–3 influence of Rikard Nordraak 181 influence of R. Schumann 126, 178, 179, 180, 182 influence of Wagner 181 influence on Beach 219 influence on Rachmaninoff 179 Lyric Pieces 179, 180–4 and Norwegian national character 181 as teaching material 181 compared with Chopin’s mazurkas 180 Grieg on 182 influence of R. Schumann 182 influence on Beach 219 ‘Notturno’ compared with Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ 183 repetitiveness 183 reviewed in Musical Times 180 ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ Grieg records 184 most popular of Lyric Pieces 183 technical challenges 184 written for amateurs 177, 180, 181–2 marriage 183 on Norwegian folk music 181 Peer Gynt 178, 179 Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16 178–80 and Hollywood movies 178 compared with R. Schumann’s Piano Concerto 178 Eric Morecambe parodies 178 Halling in 166, 180 influence of Chopin 180 influence of Liszt 179, 180 influence of Norwegian folk music 178, 180 influence of R. Schumann’s Piano Concerto 178, 179, 180 influence on Rachmaninoff 179 influence on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 164, 166


INDEX markings often ignored 178 recordings of 178 used in Intermezzo (film) 178 technical challenges 180 thematic transformation in 179 studies at Leipzig Conservatoire 178, 181 Grieg, Nina (wife of Edvard) 183 Grofé, Ferde, orchestrates Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue 314 Groth, Klaus 147 Guardian, The (newspaper) 345 Gubaidulina, Sofia 285–7 as pianist 285 Astreya (group) 285 Chaconne 285–7 influence of J.S. Bach 285–7 influence of Beethoven 286 influence of Prokofiev 286 influence of Shostakovich 286 influence of Webern 286 twelve-note row 286 electronic music 285 influence of folk music 285 on percussion 285 religious faith 285, 286 Shostakovich’s advice 285 Soviet repression 285 gypsy musicians and Brahms 143 and Haydn 41–2 and Liszt 248 Habsburg Empire see Austria Hallé, Charles, on Chopin’s playing 110 Hancock, Herbie 307 Handel, George Frideric 24 influence on Brahms 145 Hanon, Charles-Louis, The Virtuoso Pianist parodied by Shostakovich and Saint-Saëns 265 ‘hard bop’ 207 Hardin Armstrong, Lil 311 Harmonium, Janáček writes for 191 harpsichord 2, 40, 48, 105, 112 compared with piano 12–14, 33 evoked by Debussy 199, 206 by Pleyel (for Wanda Landowska) 26 played by C.P.E. Bach 28 Hartmann, Victor death 160 inspires Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition 160–3 Hawthorn, Nathaniel, and Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata 244

Haydn, Franz Joseph 28, 33–42, 102, 319 compared with Mozart 38 The Creation 146 employed by Esterházy family 35, 37, 38, 65 evokes gypsy music 41–2 impressed by Broadwood pianos 37–8 influence on Beethoven 60 influence on Brahms 146 marriage 35, 41 Mozart on 36 on Mozart 36, 58 Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob. XVI:52 37–40 technical challenges 37 written for Therese Jansen 37 Piano Trio in G major, Hob. XV25, ‘Gypsy Rondo’ 40 relationship with Mozart 57–8 Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII:6 34–7 compared with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor 58 visits London 35, 37, 41 Heine, Heinrich, on Liszt 133 Hensel, Wilhelm (husband of Fanny Mendelssohn) 94–5 Henselt, Adolf von 98 Henze, Hans Werner 286 Herrmann, Bernard 247 Herzogenberg, Elisabeth von 150 Hiller, Ferdinand, advises Felix Mendelssohn on his Piano Trio no. 1 100 Hofmann, Josef plays Beach’s ‘Fireflies’ 219 rejects Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto no. 3 225 Hollywood movies, and Grieg’s Piano Concerto 178 horn, French, significance for Brahms 142, 148 Horowitz, Vladimir, plays Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto no. 3 225 House Un-American Committee 312 Howard, Leslie 178 Howat, Roy The Art of French Piano Music 202 Debussy in Proportion 196–7, 200 Hummel, Johann Nepomuk 87, 107 compared with Szymanowska 106 Septet arrangement and Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet 78–9, 80 Preludes, influence on Chopin 113, 114–15 Hungary 35, 38, 41, 93 Bartók and folk music 248–52 Ligeti under Communist regime 271 Hymns, in Ives 244 see also chorales


INDEX I Ching and John Cage 269 and the piano keyboard 349 ‘Il faut s’amuser’, song quoted in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 166 improvisation 18 C.P.E. Bach on 28, 29 J.S. Bach 13, 15 Beethoven 62 Chopin 109–10 Miles Davis 308 decline among pianists 112–13 Bill Evans 308, 309 figured bass 19 flamenco 203 Gershwin 314, 315 Hummel 113 in public 112–13 jazz 5, 12, 292 Scott Joplin 294 Liszt 134, 135 Messiaen 266–7 Mozart 26, 315 organists 112 ‘preluding’ 112 Alberto Semprini 112 Scarlatti 24 scat singing 305 silent films 311 Art Tatum 303 India George V crowned Emperor 204 Kipling’s ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ 206 music and Messiaen 267 and Terry Riley 244 philosophy 269 ‘rasa’ and John Cage 269, 270 ‘In dulci jubilo’, quoted by Busoni 215 D’Indy, Vincent, influence on Albéniz 194 Intermezzo (film) and Grieg’s Piano Concerto 178 International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove 280 Italy 106, 161, 214, 269 Fanny Mendelssohn visits 94–5 Ives, Charles 242–5 career in insurance 242 compared with Lewis Carroll 243 compared with Rzewski 322 Essays before a Sonata 242–3 father’s experiments 242 influence of Beethoven 243 influence of transcendentalists 243

influence on Cage 243 influence on conceptualists 243 Life Insurance and its Relation to Inheritance Tax 242 on dissonance 242 on limitations of instruments 242 on music as ideas 242–3 on quartertones 242 Piano Sonata no. 2 ‘Concord’ 242–5 clusters 244 influence of Beethoven 243, 244 influence of hymns 244 influence of ragtime 244 inspired by transcendentalists 243, 244 Ives on 243 John Kirkpatrick performs 243 needs large hand 243 quotes Beethoven 243 technical challenges 243, 244 polyrhythm 242 polytonality 242 Ives, George (father of Charles) 242 Janáček, Leoš 190–3 collects Moravian folk music and ‘speech melodies’ 190 composition methods 192–3 irregular phrase lengths 192 On an Overgrown Path 190–3 and death of daughter 192 compared with Bartók’s Contrasts 251 originally for harmonium 191 titles recall Schumann 191 on relationship between speech and melody 190–1 operas 191 piano music, applies patterns of speech and nature to 191 Talich on 191 Janáček, Olga (daughter of Leoš) 192 Jansen, Therese 37, 38, 39 Japan Bunraku (puppet theatre) and Takemitsu 283 influence of music on Messiaen 267 ‘Ma’ 284 US occupation 283 Jarrett, Keith 307 Javanese gamelan see gamelan jazz 5, 289–323 Armstrong, Louis 311 bebop pianists 304–7 Jaki Byard 307 characteristics 304–5


INDEX influences later pianists 307 Thelonius Monk 306–7 Blue Monk 306 Philip Larkin on 306 Round Midnight 306 Ruby My Dear 306 Straight No Chaser 306 Well You Needn’t 306 origins in New York clubs 304 Oscar Peterson 307 Bud Powell 305–6 influence of Charlie Parker 305, 307–8 influence on Bill Evans 308 inspired by Tatum 305 Jazz Giant Celia 305 Un poco loco 305 Tempus Fugit 305 Horace Silver 307 Lennie Tristano 307 Mary-Lou Williams 307 ‘charts’ and notation 292 Chick Corea 207 influence of Bill Evans 210 Miles Davis improvisation on modes 308 Kind of Blue 308 Bill Evans 307–10 But Beautiful 309 classical training 308, 310 drug addiction 309 Funkallero 309 harmonic style 308–9 influence of J.S. Bach 308 influence of Debussy 308 influence of Bud Powell 308 influence on later pianists 310 joins Miles Davis Sextet 308 melodic style 309 Peace Piece, influence of Chopin and Messiaen 309 Trio 308–9, 310 Turn Out the Stars 309 Very Early 309 Waltz for Debby 309, 310 free jazz 207 Herbie Hancock 307 influence of Bill Evans 310 ‘hard bop’ 207 improvisation 5, 12, 292 influence on Messiaen 267, 268 influence on Ravel 235, 236, 237 Keith Jarrett 307 influence of Bill Evans 310


jazz goes classical 313–23 George Gershwin 313–17 Conlon Nancarrow 318–20 Frederic Rzewski 320–3 Igor Stravinsky 317–18 Brad Mehldau 307 influence of Bill Evans 310 modal jazz 207 Oliver, ‘King’ 311 origins in ragtime 291, 293 piano’s role in 291, 307–8 quartal harmony 309 stride piano 298–301 ‘cutting’ competitions 299 develops from ragtime 298 James P. Johnson 300, 301 accompanies Bessie Smith 300 Carolina Shout 300 memorised by Duke Ellington 300 Harlem Strut 300 You’ve Got to be Modernistic 300 teaches ‘Fats’ Waller 301 Jelly Roll Morton 299–300 Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith 300, 302 Echoes of Spring, influence of Chabrier and Debussy 300 Finger Buster 300 in World War I 300 Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller 301, 302 Ain’t Misbehavin’ 301 classical technique 301 Handful of Keys 301 Honeysuckle Rose 301 I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter 301 The Joint is Jumping 301 plays for Al Capone 301 George Shearing on 301 taught by James P. Johnson 301 Your Feet’s Too Big 301 ‘symphonic jazz’ 313–17 Art Tatum 301–4, 305 attracts classical pianists 303 blindness 301, 302 ‘cutting’ contest 302 Dvořák’s Humoreske 303–4 harmonies and complexity 302 improvisation 303 Lulu’s Back in Town 302 self-taught 301–2 Tea for Two 302 technical precision 302, 303 Tiger Rag 302 McCoy Tyner 307

INDEX transposition 291–2 Cedar Walton 307 women jazz pianists 310–13 Austin, Lovie 311 Bley, Carla 313 Brackeen, Joanne 313 Hardin Armstrong, Lil 311 Hotter Than That 311 in King Oliver’s band 311 in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five 311 Jones, Norah 313 Krall, Diana 313 McPartland, Marie 312–13 Duke Ellington on 312 in Billy Mayerl’s Quartet 312 radio show 313 Mullins, Mazie 311 Fats Waller on 311 Rahman, Zoe 313 Scott, Hazel 312 Simone, Nina 313 Williams, Mary Lou 311–12 Drag ‘Em 311 Nightlife 311 The Heat’s On (film) 312 plays with Duke Ellington 311 political activity 312 Jean Paul (Richter), and Schumann 125, 130 Joachim, Joseph character of his playing 147 friendship with Brahms 146–7 introduces Brahms to the Schumanns 146 manifesto against ‘progressive’ music 146 on early version of Brahms’s Piano Quintet 144 on Felix Mendelssohn’s modesty 100 Jobim, Antonio Carlos, Insensatez based on Chopin 114 Johnson, James P. 300, 303 Jolson, Al 314 Jones, Norah 313 Joplin, Scott 293–5 Bethena (waltz) 295 The Easy Winners 295 The Entertainer 295 Maple Leaf Rag 293, 295 composition method 295 described in Ragtime (novel) 295 piano roll 294 technical challenges 295 and origins and character of ragtime 293–4 influence of Cuban music 294 influence of marches 294 influence of Schubert 294

influence on Debussy 295 influence on Mayerl 295 influence on Satie 295 influence on Stravinsky 295 on character of ragtime 293 on tempo of ragtime 294 revival in 1970s 295 Joshua Rifkin plays 295 The Sting 295 taught by Julius Weiss 294 Josef II, Emperor of Austria 45–6 Journal de Musique 152 Journal of Luxury and Fashion, Weimar 48 Joyce, James 269 Kaiserling, Count 14 Kane, Art, A Great Day in Harlem (photo) 313 Kant, Immanuel 59 Kerouac, Jack 269 Keys, composers’ choice of 51–2, 65 King’s Speech, The (film) 342 Kipling, Rudyard, ‘Toomai of the Elephants’, Debussy attempts prelude on 206 Kirkpatrick, John, perform Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata 243 Kirkpatrick, Ralph, catalogue of Scarlatti’s Sonatas 25 Klee, Paul 309 Klezmer influence on Chopin 118 influence on Shostakovich 263 Kodály, Zoltán, folk music research with Bartók 248 Krall, Diana 313 Krupa, Gene 251 Kubrick, Stanley, Eyes Wide Shut (film) 272 Kurtág, György 279–82 as pianist 280 as teacher 279–80, 281 demanding standards 281–2 Játékok 279–82 arrangements 282 commission 280 compared with Bartok’s Mikrokosmos 280 compared with Judith Weir 333 enigmatic titles 281 intersperses with Bach chorales 281 on inspiration by children 280 performed by Kurtág and his wife 280, 282 pieces for more than one player 282 playful instructions 280


INDEX tributes to Bach and other composers 281, 282 Kurtág, Márta (wife of György) 280 LaFaro, Scott 310 Landowska, Wanda 14 recordings of Scarlatti 26 Lanz, Joseph, on Schubert’s pianoplaying 84–5 Larkin, Philip, on Thelonius Monk 306 Larrocha, Alicia de, plays Albéniz’s Iberia 196 ‘late style’ 74, 87–8, 98, 137, 149, 150–1, 184, 207 Lecocq, Charles 152 Leibowitz, René, teaches Boulez 275 Leipzig 69, 95, 194 Conservatoire 97, 178 Leningrad and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 361 see also St Petersburg Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Nathan the Wise 97 Levi, Hermann, on Brahms’s Piano Quintet 144 Levine, Ed, inspires Debussy’s ‘General Levine – eccentric’ 204 Lewis, Paul, on Schubert 89 Ligeti, György 271–4 and Communist repression 271 and World War II 271 as teacher 271 Études 271 influence of Bartók 271 influence of Chopin 271 influence of Debussy 271 influence of Liszt 271 inspired by Mann’s Doktor Faustus 271 Musica Ricercata 271–4 composition method 272 influence of Bartók and folk music 272, 273 influence of Frescobaldi 274 influence of ricercare 271–2, 274 markings 272, 273 used in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut 272 on Nancarrow 320 Linke, Joseph 72, 81 Lippold, Richard (sculptor), influence on John Cage 270 Lisbon, Portugal 23 Listen with Mother (BBC radio programme), Fauré’s ‘Berceuse’ used for 188 Liszt, Cosima see Wagner, Cosima Liszt, Franz 24, 93, 98, 133–6, 155

as improviser 134, 135 as pianist 93, 133–4, 135 as teacher 134 attacked in manifesto of Brahms and Joachim 146 character 93, 133–4 compared with Busoni 214 composition technique 135, 136–7 daughter Cosima marries Wagner 137 depression 136 Feux Follets 96 Heine on 133 Hungarian Rhapsodies, folk/gypsy origins 248 identified with ‘New German School’ 141 improvisation 135 influence of R. Schumann 135, 136 influence on Albéniz 194 influence on Beach 219 influence on Debussy 134–5, 136–7, 207 influence on Fauré 185 influence on Gershwin 315 influence on Grieg 178, 179, 180 influence on Messiaen 268 influence on Ravel 134–5, 136–7 influence on Smetana 137, 140 influence on Tchaikovsky 165, 166 influence on Wagner 134 Les Jeux d’Eau à la Villa d’Este 279 inspired by Paganini 133 Kapellmeister in Weimar 134 late works 136 ‘Die Lorelei’ 137 Nuages Gris 136–8 on Clara Schumann 131 on Field’s playing 104 pioneers solo concert 133 Piano Sonata in B minor 135–6, 140 dedicated to R. Schumann 135 Clara Schumann on 135 Brahms’s opinion of 135 influence of R. Schumann’s Fantasy 136 technical challenges 136 relationship with Princess Caroline von Sayn-Wittgenstein 134 relationship with Wagner 137 reputation 134–5 takes holy orders 134 teaches Carl Baermann 219 thematic transformation 135, 179 Little Women (film) 342 London, England 33, 35, 37, 41, 102, 191, 194 Barbican Centre 317 Buckingham Palace 94


INDEX Long, Marguerite 198 At the Piano with Debussy 201 on Debussy’s playing 201 on Fauré’s Piano Quartet no. 1 186 premieres Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major 237 studies with Fauré 186 Longo, Alessandro, edition of Scarlatti 24 Loriod, Yvonne, and Messiaen 268 Lutheran chorales ‘Ein Feste Burg’ and Debussy 209 incorporated by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn 95 ‘Ma’ importance for Takemitsu 284 in Japanese culture 284 McPartland, Marie 312–13 Madrid, Spain 23 Mahler (Schindler), Alma 5, 253 Mahler, Gustav marriage to Alma Schindler 5 Rachmaninoff on his conducting 225 supports Schoenberg’s early works 245 ‘Maja’ and ‘Majo’, in Goya and Granados 216 La maja desnuda (Goya) 216 La maja vestida (Goya) 216 Mallarmé, Stéphane and Debussy 206 on symbolism 227 Manet, Édouard 227 Mann, Thomas, Doktor Faustus 271 Maria Barbara of Portugal, Princess (later Queen of Spain) 23 Maria Fiedorovna, Tsarina of Russia 107 Marienbad (Bohemia) 106 Marsellaise, La, quoted by Debussy 207 Marx, Chico 316 mathematics compared with music 57 in Debussy 196–7 in J.S. Bach 197 in Messiaen 267 in Satie 196 see also Golden Section Mayerl, Billy 296–8 and World War II 298 The Antiquary 298 as pianist 296, 297 at Savoy Hotel 297 Billy Mayerl School of Piano 297 Billy Mayerl Society 298 classical training 296 The Harp of the Winds 298

influence of Felix Arndt and Zez Confrey 296 influence of Gershwin 317 influence of Joplin 295, 296 The Jazz Master 296–7 Mayerl on technical challenges and sales 296 Marigold 298 on arrival of ‘syncopated music’ 296 plays Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue 297 radio shows 296 recordings 298 revival in 1990s 298 Sleepy Piano 298 teachers appalled 296 teaches King and Queen of Spain 297 technical challenges 296, 297 Mazurka Adès 335–7 character of the dance 117–18 Chopin 117–21 mediaeval music and ambient music 345 and Brahms 151 and Debussy 200–1 and Fauré 184 and Satie 212 Mehldau, Brad 307 Melancholia (film) 342 Memorisation Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson 300 John Kirkpatrick memorises Ives’s ‘Concord’ Sonata 243 Mozart 46, 57 Fanny Mendelssohn 95 Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor 100 Schoenberg 247 Szymanowska 105 Mendelssohn (Hensel), Fanny 5, 93, 94–6 as pianist 94, 95–6 compared with Felix Mendelssohn 95 compared with Mozart 101 compared with R. Schumann 95 Gounod on 95 identified as ‘conservative’ composer 142 incorporates J.S. Bach’s chorales 95, 96 influence of J.S. Bach 96 influence of Liszt 96 influence of Schubert 96 influence on Beach 219 Das Jahr 94–6 compared with Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons 96 technical challenges 96


INDEX marriage 94–5 plays at Villa Medici, Rome 95 songs without words 103 Mendelssohn, Felix 5, 93, 94, 97–102 anti-Semitism and 97 as conductor 97, 132 conducts Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto 132 baptised as a Christian 97 Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, quoted by R. Schumann and Elgar 127 changing fashion for his music 98 character 97, 98 compared with Fanny Mendelssohn 96 compared with R. Schumann 98 director of Leipzig Conservatoire 97, 178 family 97 discourages Fanny Mendelssohn from publishing 94 influence of J.S. Bach 98 influence of Beethoven 98, 99 Jewish ancestry 97 meets Queen Victoria 94 Midsummer Night’s Dream 101 Octet in E flat major, op. 20 98 on Chopin 116 performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 66 piano quartets 184 Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor 99–102 difficulty 100 Hiller advises on 100 Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, op. 66 95 plays from memory 100 plays to Goethe 97 publishes Fanny Mendelssohn’s songs under his name 94 revival of J.S. Bach 27 St Matthew Passion 95, 97 tempo 101 Variations Sérieuses in D minor, op. 54 97–9 Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 influence on Rachmaninoff 226 influence on Ravel 236 Wagner on 97 Mendelssohn, Moses, model for Lessing’s Nathan the Wise 97 mental health and piano-playing x and R. Schumann 121–2, 132, 135 Messiaen, Olivier 266–8 additive rhythms 267 and World War II 266

as organist at Sainte Trinité, Paris 266 improvisations 267 as pianist 266 birdsong anticipated in Granados 217 Catholic faith 266 death 266 influence of J.S. Bach 267 influence of birdsong 267, 268 influence of gamelan 267 influence of Indian music 267 influence of Japanese music 267 influence of jazz 267, 268 influence of mathematics 267 influence of Mussorgsky 267 influence of serialism 267 influence of Wagner 267, 268 influence on Boulez 276 influence on Bill Evans 309 influence on Takemitsu 283, 284 Yvonne Loriod performs 268 on birds 267 on colours 267 on General de Gaulle 266 Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps 266 synaesthesia 267 technical challenges 268 Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus 266–8 composed in Nazi-occupied Paris 266 devotional character 267–8 influence of Debussy 267 influence of Liszt 268 influence of Wagnerian leitmotifs 268 Messiaen on 267 Mexico 319 Mickiewicz, Adam 107 ‘Mighty Handful’ (Russian composers) 159 Milton, John, Paradise Lost 136 minimalism 328–32 and ambient music 344 continuing influence 341 ‘holy minimalism’ 328 modes influence of church modes on Fauré 185, 186 modal jazz 207 Mongols, in Caucasus 156 Monk, Thelonius 306–7 Moravia character different from Bohemia 190 Influence of Russia, Byzantium, and orthodox chant 190 influence of folk music and speech rhythms on Janáček 190–1


INDEX Morecambe, Eric, parodies Grieg’s Piano Concerto 178 Morisot, Berthe 228 Morton, Jelly Roll 299–300 Moscheles, Ignaz 98 influence on Beach 219 Piano Concerto 3 218 Moscow, Russia 255 Conservatoire 155, 156, 164–5 Central Music School 263 Motian, Paul 310 Mozart, Leopold (father of Wolfgang 5, 45 Mozart, Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’, sister of Wolfgang) 5, 42 Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus 5, 28, 33, 34, 35, 42–58, 101, 102, 155, 193, 315, 330 cadenzas 54 character and emotional range 55 compared with J.S. Bach 12 compared with Haydn 38 compared with Ravel 231 Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major, K365/316a 42, 43 death 35, 58 editions 53 Gran Partita, K361 46 Haydn on 36 importance of his rests 49 in films 342 influence on Beethoven 60 influence on Brahms 141 The Magic Flute 44, 47, 55 The Marriage of Figaro 52, 55 on C.P.E. Bach 27 on Haydn 36 on Piano Concertos K413–15 45 on Josepha von Auernhammer 43 on Regina Strinasacchi 45 order of instruments in duos 147 piano concertos 45, 49, 51 compared with Ravel 234 in D minor, K466 141 in A major, K488 51–5, 56 in C minor, K491 141 piano quartets 184 no. 2 in G minor, K478 48–51 technical challenges 49, 50 plays to Goethe 97 relationship with Haydn 57–8 Rondo in A minor, K511 36–7 compared with Haydn’s Variations in F minor 58

Piano Sonata in A major, K331, ‘Rondo alla Turca’ 44 Quintet for Clarinet and Strings K581, influence on Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major 236 Rondo in A minor, K511 54, 55–8 Schubert on 87 Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat major, K454 45–8 Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K448 42 tempo markings 53, 56 ‘Mozart Effect’ 44 Mullins, Mazie 311 Munch, Edvard, The Scream 233 mushrooms, and John Cage 269 Musical Digest 235 Musical Times 180 Mussorgsky, Modest 159–64 anti-Semitism 162 Boris Godunov 161 friendship with Victor Hartmann 159 influence on Messiaen 267 meets Borodin 159 member of ‘Mighty Handful’ 159 on his own music 160 Pictures at an Exhibition 93, 159–64 character of piano writing 160 compared with Granados’s Goyescas 216 contrasted with Liszt 160 inspired by exhibition of Victor Hartmann 160 Mussorgsky’s commentary on 162–3 Ravel’s orchestration 160, 164 Russian folksong in 161 Russian Orthodox chant in 164 technical challenge 162 taught by Balakirev 159 Nahowski, Helene, (wife of Alban Berg) 253 Nancarrow, Conlon 318–20 adoption of player piano 319 Boogie-Woogie Suite 319 compared with Ives 319 influence of J.S. Bach 320 influence of blues 319 Ligeti on 320 politics 319 rhythm inspired by Cowell 319 settles in Mexico 319 Studies for Player Piano 3a–e 318–20 Study for Player Piano no. 21 (Canon X) 320 taught by Piston and Sessions 318 Napoleon Bonaparte, and Beethoven 68


INDEX Nathan the Wise (Lessing) 97 nature and the sublime and Beethoven 59 and Ives 243, 244 and Transcendentalists 243,244 Nazis 256 concentration camps 261, 271 occupation of Paris 266 neo-classicism, and Ravel 235 Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, R. Schumann article on Brahms 141 Neuhaus, Heinrich, teaches Sviatoslav Richter 256 ‘New German School’, conflict with ‘conservative’ composers 142 New Orleans, and origins of jaz 294 New York, USA 191, 196, 225, 252, 269, 302, 303, 304, 309, 310, 312, 313, 314, 317, 319, 330, 331, 341 Aeolian Hall 314 Café Society 312 Hickory House jazz club 313 Juilliard School 322 Lincoln Movie Theater, Harlem 311 Morgan’s Bar, Harlem 302 Philharmonic Orchestra 225 New York Times x, 196 Nietzsche, Friedrich, influence on Scriabin 219 ‘Night music’ (Nachtmusik, notturni) in Bartók 273 in Field, Haydn and Mozart 102 in Ligeti 273 in Ravel 229 Nordraak, Rikard, introduces Grieg to Norwegian folk music 181 Norwegian fiddle playing, influence on Grieg 181, 183 ‘Norwegian’ melodic shape, in Grieg 179, 180 Nuvellist magazine 167 Nyman, Michael 344 The Heart Asks Pleasure First 344 Oe, Kenzaburo, Women Listening to the Rain Tree inspires Takemitsu 284 Oliver, ‘King’ 311 Ondes Martenot 236 opera Italian popular in Germany 27 Italian popular in Spain 194 popular in France 152 Saint-Saëns defends instrumental music against 152 organ 2, 112 J.S. Bach 12, 20, 214, 215

Busoni 214, 215 Philip Glass 331 in movie theatres 311 Messiaen 266–7 Saint-Saëns 154 oriental influences Balakirev 155–7 Cage 270 Caucasian folk music 156 Debussy 199, 201 Ravel 228, 232, 235, 236 Takemitsu 284 Ottomans, in Caucasus 156 Ozawa, Seiji, on Takemitsu 283 Paderewski, Ignacy Jan 241 recording of Chopin’s Mazurka op. 63 no. 3 120 Paganini, Niccolò, inspires Liszt 133 Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da, influence on Brahms 145 Paris, France 109, 110, 118, 159, 168, 194, 231, 312, 317 Bastille Day evoked by Debussy 206 catacombs 163 Conservatoire 184, 211 Great Exhibition 197–8 liberation of 266 Parker, Charlie 306 Pärt, Arvo 328–30 converts to Orthodox Church 328 Für Alina 328–30 bells and ‘tintinnabuli’ style 328, 330 challenge of performing 329–30 compared with Satie 329 lack of markings 328 influence of religious music 328 influence on later composers 330 Nekrolog, 12-note style criticised 328 Reich on 330 ‘Le Pas espagnol’ in Fauré’s Dolly Suite 189 in horse dressage 189 painting by Toulouse-Lautrec 189 Paumgartner, Sylvester 78, 80 Pearce, Charles W. 296 pedalling in J.S. Bach 13, 14, 18, 21 in Bizet 157–8 in Chopin 120 in Debussy 201, 203 in Mozart 49, 53 in Mussorgsky 160 in Pärt 329


INDEX in Poulenc 260 in Rachmaninoff 226 in Satie 212 in Weir 333, 334, 335 una corda (soft pedal) in Beethoven 67 in Berio 278 in Chopin 109 in Grieg 183 in Schumann 129 Pedrell, Felipe collects Spanish folk music 194 cultivates Spanish national school 194 influences Albéniz, Granados and de Falla 194 pentatonic scale in Debussy 198, 199, 204 in Ravel 236 Period instruments compared with modern 33–4 and editions of Mozart 53 Perlmuter, Vlado on Debussy 196 taught by Ravel 196 teaches Susan Tomes 196 Peterson, Oscar 307 Philip V, King of Spain 23 philosophy Eastern and minimalism 341 Nietzsche and Scriabin 219, 221 German Enlightenment and C.P.E. Bach 27 Kant, Schoenhauer and the sublime 59 Indian and Cage 269, 270 Japanese and Takemitsu 283 Moses Mendelssohn 97 Transcendentalists and Ives 243 Pianist, The (film) 342 piano action, heavy on modern 26, 65, 101, 129, 207, 230 and popular music 241 Bösendorfer 33 Broadwood 33 and the rise of the middle classes 177 affordability 177 as a domestic instrument 1–3, 40, 167, 177, 180, 349 impact of recordings on 241 J.S. Bach encounters 12–13 compared with spinning jenny 322 compared with harpsichord 12–14, 33 computer-generated 342 development of the instrument 12–13, 23–4, 33, 37–8, 59, 62, 65, 69, 93,177, 230

digital 3, 342 dummy keyboard 225, 348 Erard favoured by Ravel 229 Fazioli 33 grand piano, prestige of 342 growth in manufacture in Russia 167 in China 348 in concert 349 in silent films 311 its characteristics 1–3, 33 keyboard, design of 348 period instruments compared with modern 33–4, 65 player piano 318–20 ‘prepared piano’ 270, 327 role in modern music 327 sales boosted by ragtime 293 Steinway 14, 33 una corda pedal 67 worldwide appeal 347–8 Yamaha 33 piano concertos 51–5, 65–8, 68–71, 126–8, 131–3, 140–3, 164–7, 178–80, 222–4, 224–7, 234–7, 263–5 piano duets (two players at one piano) 3, 42, 62, 84–7, 157–9, 177, 187–8, 280, 282 performing 85 piano duos (two players at two pianos) 3, 42–5, 85 difficulty of playing 43 piano quartets 3, 48–51, 184–7 characteristics of 49 heyday in 19th century 184 piano quintets 3, 77, 144–6, 170–3, varying role of the piano in 144 piano trios 3, 40–2, 71–4, 81–4, 99–102, 128–31, 138–40, 152–5, 231–4, 250–2, 260–3 Pierrot and Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano 208–9 and Banville’s ‘Pierrot’ 208 and Verlaine’s ‘Pantomime’ 208 Piston, Walter, teaches Nancarrow 318 Pittsburgh, USA 311 Platoon (film) 342 player piano, and Nancarrow 318–20 Ployer, Barbara von 34 Poland 93, 109, 117–19 uprising against Russia 118 Polish Music Center 105 polyrhythm, in Ives 242


INDEX polytonality in Debussy 202–3, 204 in Ives 242 in jazz 235 in Ravel 236 popular music and ambient music 344 and the piano 241 eclipses classical music 241 made available by recordings 241 Pörschach, Austria 148 Poulenc, Francis 258–60 compared with Fauré 189 influence on Shostakovich 264 The Story of Babar the Elephant 258–60 compared with Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants 258 dissonance 260 fingering 259 influence of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring 259 orchestrated by Françaix 258 parody of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy 260 story parody of French colonialism 258–9 technical challenges 258 Powell, Bud 305–6 practising the piano x, 4, 42, 43, 63, 100, 132, 213–14, 225, 230, 236, 258, 286, 302, 318, 341, 348 see also rehearsal Prague, Bohemia 55 National Theatre (Provisional Theatre) 137 ‘preluding’ 112 ‘prepared’ Piano, and John Cage 270 Previn, André 178 Prokofiev, Carolina (wife of Sergei) 257 Prokofiev, Sergei 98, 255–8 and Stalin 255 as pianist 255 criticised for ‘formalism’ 255 influence on Shostakovich 264 Piano Sonata no. 7 in B flat major, op. 83 255–8 dissonance and character 256 influence of Spanish dance 257 influence of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring 257 infuence on Gubaidulina 286 influence on Shostakovich 265 premiered by Richter 255 quotes Schumann 256–7 Richter on 256 technical challenges 256, 257

tempo markings 257 a ‘war sonata’ 255–6 wins Stalin Prize 256 return to Russia 255 Proust, Marcel 157 Psychology of Music (journal) 45 publishers 62, 86, 87, 126, 171, 188, 197, 206, 208, 231, 295 and the domestic market 177 Purcell, Henry, Dido and Aeneas 137 Pushkin, Alexander 107 quartal harmony, and Bill Evans 309 quarter-tones, in Ives 242 Queen’s Hall, London 297 Quodlibet, in J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations 16 Rachmaninoff, Sergei 112, 222–6 as pianist 222, 224, 225 emigration to USA 224, 227 enormous hands 222 in film 342 influence of Grieg’s Piano Concerto 179 influence of Russian Orthodox Chant 223, 225–6 influence of Tchaikovsky 226 influence on Gershwin 316 influence on Shostakovich 264 on Mahler’s conducting 225 Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18 222–4 compared with Chopin 224 cross-rhythms 223 influence of Russian Orthodox Chant 223 keys influenced by Beethoven 223 markings exaggerated 224 Rachmaninoff ’s recording 224 Rzewski quotes 322 Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op. 30 224–6 and women pianists 225 cadenzas 226 compared with Debussy 227 composed for US tour 225 cuts 225 Hofmann rejects 225 Horowitz plays 225 influence of J.S. Bach 226 influence of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto 226 influence of Russian Orthodox Chant 225–6 influence of Tchaikovsky 226–7 influence on Shostakovich 264


INDEX ‘Ondine’ compared with Debussy’s ‘Ondine’ 205 technical challenges 205 ‘Scarbo’ inspired by Balakirev’s Islamey 155 influence of Gershwin 235, 237 influence of jazz 235, 236, 237 influence of Liszt 134–5, 136–7 influence on Shostakovich 264 Jeux d’Eau 279 joins ‘Les Apaches’ 228 Ma Mère l’Oye inspired by Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants 157 Miroirs 227–31 ‘Alborado del Gracioso’, evokes Spain 230 and symbolist writers 227 technical challenges 230 ‘Une Barque sur l’Océan’ orchestration 229 tempo 229 dedicated to members of ‘Les Apaches’ 228 markings 229, 230 ‘Noctuelles’ compared with Bartók’s ‘night music’ 229 Ravel on 229 rhythmic complexity 229 ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ influence on Boulez 276 Viñes on 229 symbolism of mirrors 227–8 technical challenges 228–9, 230 ‘La Vallée des Cloches’, influence of gamelan 230 on copying other works 232, 255 on importance of jazz 235 orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition 160, 164 ‘oriental’ flavour 235, 236 Piano Concerto for the Left Hand 235 Piano Concerto in G major 234–7 compared with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto 236 compared with Mozart’s concertos 234 compared with Saint-Saëns’s concertos 234 compared with Stravinsky’s Petrushka 236, 237 cross-rhythms in 236 influence of Gershwin 237 influence of harpsichord music 236 influence of jazz 235, 236, 237 influence of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet 236

Mahler conducts 225 reception in USA 225 technical challenges 225, 226 plays Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons 169 recordings 222, 224 technical challenges 177, 225 tours USA 224–5 treated for writer’s block by Nikolai Dahl 222 Rackham, Arthur, fairy illustrations and Debussy 202, 203–4 radio impact 241 and Ligeti 271 and Marian McPartland 313 and Billy Mayerl 297 and Hazel Scott 312 and Alberto Semprini 113 and Takemitsu 283 and Art Tatum 302 and Mary Lou Williams 312 jammed in Hungary 271 Listen with Mother 188 US Armed Forces 283 ragtime influence of African-American rhythm 293 at Chicago World Fair 293 develops into stride piano 298 eclipsed by rise of jazz 295 influence of Sousa’s marches 293 influence of waltzes 293 revival in 1970s 295 Scott Joplin 293–5 origins and character 293–4, 298 piano rolls 294 premonition in Beach 219 recordings 293–4 ‘Spanish tinge’ 294 Rahman, Zoe 313 Raksin, David 247 Rameau, Jean-Philippe Castor et Pollux, Debussy attends 199 Debussy on 199 Ravel, Maurice 227–37 and World War 1 231, 234 as pianist 228–9 character 228, 235 compared with Mozart 231 compared with Scriabin 221 composition methods 231 a dandy 228 L’Enfant et les Sortilèges 229 favours Erard piano 229 Gaspard de la Nuit


INDEX influence of Satie 236 influence on Shostakovich 265 Marguerite Long premiere 237 Ravel on 234, 236, 237 role of pianist in 236 technical challenges 237 Piano Trio in A minor 231–2 compared with Schubert’s Piano Trio in E flat major 232 cross-rhythms in scherzo 187 influence of Basque folk music 232 influence of Fauré 187 influence of Saint-Saëns’s Piano Trio no. 1 232 Ravel on 231, 232 rhythmic complexity 232–4 second movement based on Pantoum 232–3 compared with Munch’s The Scream 233 technical challenges 232, 233, 234 tempo markings 232, 233 polytonality 235, 236 Sonata for Violin and Cello Jourdan-Morhange on difficulty 234 Ravel on 234 Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major influence on Bartók 251 jazz influence on 235 Sonata for Violin and Piano (Sonate Posthume) 232 teaches Vlado Perlmuter 196 technical challenges 177, 205, 228–9, 230, 232, 233, 234 Valses Nobles et Sentimentales 228 headed by quote from de Régnier 228 recordings 5, 43, 112 Bartók records folk music 248 encourage passive listening 241 impact 241 of Bartók’s Contrasts 250 of Grieg’s Piano Concerto 178 Rachmaninoff ’s 222, 224 range of music available 241 recruiting dance (Verbunkos), in Bartók’s Contrasts 251 Régnier, Henri de, quoted by Ravel 228 rehearsal 42, 66, 225, 314 see also practising the piano Reich, Steve, influence on Glass 330 Reitz, Rosetta, on women in jazz 310 Rellstab, Ludwig, compares Field and Chopin 104–5 Renaissance music, Fauré influenced by 184

repeats, observing 50, 64–5 repertoire choice of 4–5 richness of 6–7 Revue Musicale, commissions ‘tombeau’ for Debussy 249 Ricercare 271 Richter, Max 344 Richter, Sviatoslav on difficulty of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no. 5 221 premieres Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata no. 7 255 taught by Heinrich Neuhaus 256 Ries, Ferdinand, on Beethoven’s method of composing 64 Rifkin, Joshua, plays Joplin 295 Riley, Terry, In C 344 Roach, Max 306 Romanticism 36, 68, 93, 103, 110, 113, 121, 126, 149, 164, 214, 216, 245, 246, 247, 254, 256, 268, 270, 315, 327, 333 Rome, Italy, Villa Medici 95 Roosor, Louis, on Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano 208–9 Rosicrucianism Debussy’s interest in 196 description 196 Satie’s interest in 196 Rubinstein, Nikolai 153 and Balakirev’s Islamey 155 criticises Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 164 director of Moscow Conservatoire 164 Tchaikovsky on 164 Rudolph, Archduke plays Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto 69 dedicatee of Beethoven’s works 71–2 Russell, Curly 306 Russia 93, 317 and World War II 261 Caucasus becomes part of Russian Empire 156 ‘Mighty Handful’ 159 Polish uprising against 118 popularity of the piano in 19th century 167 Revolution 227 rhythms of speech 159 Russian nationalist school 155, 159 Tsar encourages piano manufacture 167 see also Stalin, Joseph; USSR Russian Orthodox Chant influence on Rachmaninoff 223, 225–6 in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition 164


INDEX Rzewski, Frederic 320–3 concern for social justice 320 The People United Will Never Be Defeated 320 Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues 320–3 compared with Ives 322 cotton mill strike 321 quotes Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto no. 2 322 St Jean-de-Luz, France 231, 232 St Petersburg, Russia 102, 317 Artists’ Club 161 Conservatoire 155 Imperial Russian Ballet School 161 see also Leningrad Saint-Saëns, Camille 93, 152–5 as organist 154 as pianist 154 becomes ‘grand old man’ of French music 153 Carnival of the Animals 154 parodies Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist 265 champions chamber music in France 152 compared with Debussy 154 compared with Ravel 234 Danse Macabre, influence on Bartók 252 dances Galatea and Pygmalion with Tchaikovsky 153 Fauré on his teaching 185 friendship with Tchaikovsky 153 influence of R. Schumann 154 influence of Tchaikovsky 153 influence on Fauré 185 influence on Tchaikovsky 154 love of ballet 153 Piano Quartet in B flat major, op. 41, influence on Fauré 184 Piano Trio no. 1 in F major, op. 18 153 influence on Ravel’s Piano Trio 232 Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 92 152–5 compared with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio 153 Saint-Saëns on 153 technical challenges 152, 154–5 teaches Fauré at École Niedermeyer 185 Salieri, Antonio 46 salons and the piano 2–3 Chopin prefers 93, 110 Fauré attends 185 Pauline Viardot’s 185 Szymanowska’s 107 Sand, George, relationship with Chopin 116 Sandomierz, Poland 162

San Sebastian, Spain 203 Satie, Erik 210–13 at Le Chat Noir 211 character 211 compared with Pärt 329 composition methods 211–12 Croquis et Agaceries 212 Debussy supports 211 Descriptions Automatiques 212 drawing by Cocteau 210 Embryons Desséchés 212 Le Fils des Étoiles 212 Gymnopédies 210–13, 347 harmonies 213 inspires ambient music 344 Satie on 344 scarcity of markings 212 orchestration by Debussy 211 humour 212 influence on Ravel 236 interest in ancient Greece 211, 213 interest in Rosicrucianism 196 ‘medieval’ character of music 212 Memoirs of an Amnesiac 212 originator of ‘Ambient Music’ 213 ‘Le Piccadilly’ influenced by Joplin 295 Pièces Froides 212 response to Wagnerism 211 self-portrait 210 student years 211 Savoy Hotel, London Billy Mayerl plays at 297 Savoy Havana Band 297 Sayn-Wittgenstein, Caroline von, relationship with Liszt 134 Scarlatti, Alessandro 23 Scarlatti, Domenico influence of Spanish, Portuguese, Moorish and flamenco guitar on 23, 24, 25–6 harpsichord versus piano 25–6 life 23–4 Phrygian mode in 24 sonatas 23–7 in D minor, K1 26 in G minor, K8 26 in D minor, K9 26 in F major, K17 26 in E major, K20 26 in A major, K24 26 in B minor, K27 26 in C minor, K56 26 in D major, K96 26 in D minor, K141 26


INDEX in A major, K208 26 in B flat major, K273 26 in E major, K380 26–7 in G minor, K426 26 in G major, K455 26 in D major, K492 25 tempos 25 Schaffer, Peter, Amadeus 45 Scheibe, Johann Adolf 17 Schneider, Friedrich 69 Schnitzler, Arthur, La Ronde 253 Schoenberg, Arnold 197, 245–7 atonality 245, 246, 254 ‘developing variation’ 253 early support by Mahler and Strauss 245 early works 245 ‘emancipation of the dissonance’ 241 on Cage 271 teaches Berg and Webern 253, 254, 255 teaches Cage 269, 271 Three Pieces for Piano, op. 11 246 Five Pieces for Piano, op. 23 245–7, 275 compared with Pierrot Lunaire 246 detailed markings 247 difficult to memorise 246, 247 sparse piano-writing 246–7 twelve-note language perplexing 246 Gurrelieder 245 on music and composing 269 on writing for piano 246 Pierrot Lunaire compared with Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano 208 pupils 247 serialism 245–6, 247 inspires ‘total serialisation’ 245 use in horror films and cartoons 247 Suite for Piano, op. 25 246 teaches Cage 269 twelve-note (twelve-tone) method 245–6 development rooted in tradition 245 Verklärte Nacht 245 Wind Quintet, op. 26 275 Schopenhauer, Arthur 59 Schroeter, Rebecca 41 Schubert, Franz 77–90, 159, 330 Allegro in A minor for Piano Duet, D947 85 as pianist 77–8, 84–5 Beethoven on his songs 87 character 77, 84 dances 87 composing methods 78–9, 82 difficulty of his music 81–2 Erlkönig, influence on Smetana 139–40


Fantasy in C major, D760, ‘Wanderer’ 79 parodied by Poulenc 160 Fantasy in C major for Piano and Violin, D934 79–80, 87 Fantasy in F minor for Piano Duet, D940 85 Die Forelle (The Trout) 78, 79 Gretchen am Spinnrade 96 illness 88 importance of amateur musicians to 84–5 Impromptu in F minor, D935, no. 1 influence on Berio 278 influence of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in G, op. 31 no. 1 89 influence of Haydn 39 influence on Beach 219 influence on Berio 278 influence on Brahms 145, 146 influence on Smetana 139 late works, character of 87–8 Schumann, Robert, on 87 nickname 78 on Beethoven 81, 87 on Mozart 87 Pilgerweise 88 piano duets 85 orchestral character of 86 Piano Quintet in A major, D667, ‘Trout’ 77–81, 144 compared with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet 171 relationship with Hummel’s Quintet arrangement of his Septet 78–9, 80 piano sonatas, final three 87 Piano Sonata in G major, D894 82 Piano Sonata in A major, D959 87–90 Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960 80, 87 Piano Trio in B flat major, D898 87 Piano Trio in E flat major, D929 81–4, 87 compared with Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio 81 compared with Ravel’s Piano Trio 232 first performance 81 technical challenges 81, 82, 83 reputation 77 Rondo for Piano Duet in A major, D951 84–7 influenced by Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E minor, op. 90 85 Schumann, Robert, on 86 Die schöne Müllerin 4 ‘Schubertiades’ 84 Schumann, Robert, on his piano trios 81 ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ 80

INDEX String Quartet in D minor, D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’ 79 String Quintet in C major, D956 87 Symphony no. 9 in C major, D944 87 Winterreise 4, 83, 87 Schumann (Wieck), Clara 5, 24, 93, 131–3 admired by Liszt and Goethe 131 as pianist 126, 131–2, 178 Brahms supports 141, 148 Chopin on 132 composition methods 133 concert tours 131, 132, 133 discouraged by Robert from composing 131–2 influence on Brahms 133 influence on Smetana 137 large hands 132 marriage to Robert Schumann 121, 122, 131–2, 133, 141 meets Brahms 141–2, 147 on Brahms’s Piano Pieces, op. 116, 117, 118 150 on Chopin 116 on early versions of Brahms’s Piano Quintet 144 on Liszt’s Piano Sonata 135 performs Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 142 performs Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto 126, 178 Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 7 132–3 compared with Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 133 compared with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto 132 performs premiere with Felix Mendelssohn 132 Robert Schumann helps to orchestrate 132 inspired by Chopin 132 technical challenges 132 Piano Trio in G minor, op. 17 133 influences Smetana 137 Romances for Violin and Piano 133 taught by Friedrich Wieck 131 Schumann, Felix (son of Clara and Robert) and Brahms’s Sonata for Piano and Violin op. 78 148 Schumann, Ferdinand (grandson of Clara and Robert) 150 Schumann, Robert 87, 93, 121–31, 143, 159, 197 allusions to Clara in his music 123, 125, 127 as poet 125 character 121–2, 126


Clara Schumann advises 126 Clara Schumann on 122, 125 Clara Schumann performs 126 compared with Brahms 141 compared with Chopin 113 compared with Fanny Mendelssohn 95 composing methods 121–2, 123, 124, 128, 130, 141 cryptic messages 123, 125, 127 Dichterliebe 4 Fantasie in C major, op. 17 122 dedicated to Liszt 135 influence on Liszt’s Piano Sonata 136 Fantasiestücke, op. 12 125 fingering 127 Florestan and Eusebius 126 Frauenliebe und -leben 125 identified as ‘conservative’ composer 142 illness 121, 122, 141 influence of Chopin 119 influence of Jean Paul 125, 130 influence of J.S. Bach 128 influence on Dvořák 171, 172–3 influence on Fauré 185 influence on Grieg 126, 178, 180, 182 influence on Saint-Saëns 154 influence on Smetana 137 Kinderszenen, op. 15 122–5 ‘Child falling asleep’ 119 and the Doppelgänger 125 Clara Schumann on 122–3 ‘Frightening’, compared with Chopin 125 ‘Knight of the Stick Horse’ inspires Bizet 158 Kreisleriana, op. 16 124 Liederkreis, op. 39, ‘Wehmut’ quoted by Prokofiev 256–7 marriage to Clara Wieck 5, 121, 122, 131–2 meets Brahms 140–1, 147 on Brahms 141 on Chopin’s mazurkas 119 on Schubert’s piano trios 81 on Schubert’s Rondo in A major, D951 86–7 on Szymanowska’s Études 108 Phantasie for Piano and Orchestra 126 Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54 126–8 compared with Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto 132 influence on Grieg’s Piano Concerto 178, 180 origin as Phantasie 126 reception 126 Piano Quartet in E flat major, op. 47 184 influences Smetana 137

INDEX Piano Quintet in E flat major, op. 44 128 Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor, op. 63 128–31 technical challenges 128, 129 Piano Trio no. 2 in F major, op. 80 154 promotes Schubert’s music 87 quotes Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte 122 quotes Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage 127 Studies for Pedal Piano, op. 56, Bizet arranges for piano duet 157 suicide attempt 141 technical challenges 126, 127, 128–9, 131 tempo 127 textures 128, 129 Waldszenen, ‘Prophet Bird’ compared with Bizet’s ‘Le Volant’ 158 compared with Grieg’s ‘Little Bird’ 182 Schuppanzigh, Ignaz 59–60, 72, 81 Schurmann, Gerard 247 Schütz, Heinrich, influence on Brahms 145 Scott, Hazel 312 Scriabin, Alexander 219–22 and Freud 221 classification of harmonies 219–20 death 221 development of harmonic style 220 early works 220 influence of Chopin 220 influence of Mme Blavatsky 219 influence of Nietzsche 219 late works 221 ‘mystic chord’ 220 compared with Wagner’s ‘Tristan chord’ 220 philosophy and psychology 219–20, 221 piano sonatas 219 Piano Sonata no. 5, op. 53 220–2 compared with Ravel, Stravinsky, Ellington 221 markings 221 Poem of Ecstasy (poem) quoted 220 ‘prefatory action’ 221 Sviatoslav Richter on 221 reception 221–2 Shostakovich on 221 technical challenges 177, 221 Sebök, György 282 Second Viennese School 253, 275 see also Berg; Schoenberg; Webern Semprini, Alberto 112 serialism influence on Messiaen 267 Schoenberg pioneers 245 Schoenberg on 246

‘total serialisation’ 277 use in horror films and cartoons 247 see also twelve-note technique Sessions, Roger, teaches Nancarrow 318 Seville, Spain 23 Alcázar Palace 24 Shakespeare, William A Midsummer Night’s Dream 101 Hamlet 111 The Tempest 281 Shawshank Redemption, The (film) 342 Shine (film) 342 Shostakovich, Dmitri 260–5 as pianist 263 censured by Stalinist regime 264 influence on Gubaidulina 286 on Scriabin 221 Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major, op. 102 263–5 influences 264, 265 parodies Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist 265 Shostakovich on 264 Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67 260–3 and treatment of the Jews 261 and World War II 260, 261 compared with Symphony no. 7 261 influence of J.S. Bach 262 influence of klezmer 263 in memory of Sollertinsky 261 sparse piano writing 260 tempo, Shostakovich on 262 Symphony no. 7, ‘Leningrad’ Virgil Thomson on 261 Shostakovich, Maxim (son of Dmitri) premieres Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 263 Silbermann, Gottfried 13 Silesia 266 Silver, Horace 307 Simone, Nina 313 slavery, Transcendentalists against 243 Smetana, Bedřich and Czech nationalism 138, 170–1 as pianist 138 conductor at Provisional Theatre, Prague 138, 170–1 death of daughters 138 influence of Chopin 138 influence of Clara and Robert Schumann 138 influence of Liszt 138, 140 influence of Schubert 139–40 influence on Dvořák 170–1


INDEX learns Czech 138 Piano Trio in G minor, op. 15 93, 138–40 influence of Chopin 139, 140 influence of Liszt 140 influence of Schubert’s Erlkönig 139 influence of Schubert’s Piano Trio in E flat major 139 influence of R. Schumann’s Piano Quartet 139 influence on Dvořák 139 in memory of Bedřiška 137 Smetana, Bedřiška (daughter of Bedřich) 137, 139 Smetana, Gabriela (daughter of Bedřich) 137 Smith, Willie ‘The Lion’ 300, 302 Sollertinsky, Ivan Ivanovich and Shostakovich 261 Shostakovich on 261 song repertoire 3–4 Sousa, John Philip 317 marches influence ragtime 293 Spain evocation of in Albeniz’s Iberia 194–5 in Debussy’s Preludes 203 in Fauré’s Dolly Suite 189 in Ravel’s Miroirs 230 in Scarlatti’s sonatas 24 the ‘gracioso’ in Spanish comedy 230 Sparta, Greece 211 Spinoza, Baruch 209 Spohr, Louis, on première of Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio 72 Stalin, Joseph and Gubaidulina 285 and Ligeti 272 and Prokofiev 255 and Shostakovich 264 death 264 purges 255 Stalingrad, Battle of 255 Steinway pianos 14, 33 Stevenson, Ronald, on Busoni 213 Steyr, Austria 78 The Sting (film) 295 Stirling, Jane, pupil of Chopin 120 Stockhausen, Karlheinz 279 influence on Berio 277 Strauss, Richard Salome 245 supports Schoenberg’s early work 245 Stravinsky, Igor compared with Scriabin 221 influence on Shostakovich 264

music banned in Communist Hungary 271 Petrushka compared with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major 236, 237 referenced by Debussy 203 Piano Rag Music 317–18 Ansermet introduces Stravinsky to ragtime 317 claims ignorance of ragtime 317 complex rhythms 317–18 influenced by Joplin 295 markings 317 on pleasure of playing 317 Stravinsky’s recording 317 Ragtime for Eleven Instruments 317 The Rite of Spring 317 Debussy hears performance on piano 202 Debussy quotes 206 influence on Poulenc 259 influence on Prokofiev 257 The Soldier’s Tale 317 Symphony of Psalms 271 streaming 341, 342 stride piano see jazz Strinasacchi, Regina 45, 47 sublime, the see nature and the sublime Switzerland 317 ‘Symphonic jazz’ 313–17 Synaesthesia and Messiaen 267 and Scriabin 221–2 Szigeti, Josef, and Bartók’s Contrasts 250, 252 Szymanowska, Celina (daughter of Maria) 107 Szymanowska, Maria 105–8 Anglaise in A flat major, compared with Chopin’s Écossaise op. 72 no. 3 107 as pianist 105–7 as teacher 106 compared with Hummel 106 death 107 dress 106–7 Eighteen Dances 107 Études 107–8 no. 1 compared with Chopin’s Prelude, op. 28 no. 23 107 compared with Chopin’s Étude, op. 10 no. 8 107 no. 3 compared with Chopin’s Étude, op. 10 no. 7 107 no. 12 compared with Chopin’s Étude, op. 25 no. 4 107


INDEX compared with Chopin’s Variations on Là ci darem la mano 107 R. Schumann on 108 technical challenges 107 family 105 organizes tours 105–6 Goethe on 106 honoured by Tsar of Russia 107 influence on Chopin 107–8 marriage 105 mazurkas resemble Chopin’s 107 neglect by historians 105 Nocturne in B flat major, compared with Chopin’s Nocturne in A flat, op. 32 no. 2 108 plays from memory 105 Prince Ogiński on 106 relationship with Goethe 106 settles in St Petersburg 107 tours 105–7 Sławomir Dobrzański’s research on 105 Vingt Exercices et Préludes 107 Waltz no. 3, compared with Chopin’s Waltz in A flat major, op. posth. 107 Takemitsu, Tōru 283–4 encounters Bunraku 283 encounters Western music on radio 283 engagement with Japanese culture 283 influence of Debussy 283, 284 influence of Messiaen 283, 284 on importance of ‘Ma’ 284 on Messiaen 284 Ozawa on 283 Rain Tree Sketch 284 Rain Tree Sketch II 283–4 dedicated to Messiaen 284 influence of Debussy 284 influence of Messiaen 284 inspired by stories of Kenzabure Oe 284 Talich, Václav, on Janáček 191 Tatum, Art 301–4, 319 Taubert, Wilhelm 98 Tchaikovsky, Modest (brother of Pyotr) 153 Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich 164–70 admires Bizet’s Carmen 168 and Desirée Artôt 165 attends Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth 168 composition methods 165 dances Galatea and Pygmalion with Saint-Saëns 153 friendship with Saint-Saëns 153 influence of Liszt 165, 166 influence of Saint-Saëns 154

influence on Rachmaninoff 226 influence on Saint-Saëns 153 love of ballet 153 The Nutcracker 166, 170 on Balakirev’s Islamey 156 on Glinka’s Kamarinskaya 155 on Nikolai Rubinstein 164 Piano concertos 93 no. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23 164–7, 168 ‘blind octaves’ in 167 criticised by Nikolai Rubinstein 164 dominated by male performers 164 folk song in 164, 165, 166 French song in 166 influence of Grieg’s Piano Concerto 164, 166 influence on Rachmaninoff 226 premiere played by von Bülow 165 references to Desirée Artôt 165–6 technical challenges 166, 167 The Seasons 95, 167–70 commissioned by Nuvellist magazine 167 compared with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Das Jahr 96 echoes of his ballet music 168, 170 influence of Felix Mendelssohn 169 influence of R. Schumann 168, 169 influence on Rachmaninoff 226–7 technical challenges 168, 169, 170 The Sleeping Beauty 170 Swan Lake 167, 168 Symphony no. 6 in B minor, op. 74, second movement influenced by Saint-Saëns 154 teaching material, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces used as 181 technical challenges absence of in ambient music 346 and the amateur pianist 177 and the modern piano 230 heyday of virtuoso piano music 177 see also individual composers television 178, 241, 312, 342 Temps, Le 204 Teöke, Marianne, commissions Kurtag’s Játékok 280 Thalberg, Sigismond 98 ‘three-hand’ effect 99 thematic transformation in Beethoven 42, 71, 74, 76 in Brahms 143, 145, 146 in Dvořák 172 in Grieg 179, 180, 182 in Liszt 135


INDEX in Mussorgsky 174 in Rzewski 322 in Saint-Saëns 154 in Schubert 89 in Schumann 127 theosophy, influences Scriabin 219 Thomson, Virgil, on Shostakovich 261 Thoreau, Henry David and Ives 244 and Transcendentalists 244 as flautist 244 on how to live 244 Walden 244 ‘three-hand’ effect 99 Tibet 331 Toledo, Ohio, USA 302 Tolstoy, Leo on importance of music 167 plays the piano 167 Tom and Jerry, Puttin’ on the Dog uses serialism 247 Tomes, Susan experience as pianist Amy Beach unknown to 217 choice of pieces 4 disproportionate difficulty of piano parts 155 learning Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K488 52–3 Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio 72 Dvořák’s Piano Quintet 171–2 Grieg’s Lyric Pieces 182 Mayerl 298 Mendelssohn in Germany 97 Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no. 1 100, 101 Ravel’s Piano Trio 233 Saint-Saëns’s Piano Trio no. 2 154–5 Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet 80 Schumann’s Piano Concerto 127 Ronald Stevenson’s classes 213 taught by Jaki Byard 307 taught by Vlado Perlmuter 196 ‘unsuitability’ of Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 142 experience as violinist Boulez’s conducting 275 Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de 228 ‘Au Cirque – Le Pas espagnol’ 189 Transcendentalists and Emerson 243 and Ives 243–4 description 243 transcriptions J.S. Bach 17

Busoni 214 Liszt 214 Transposition, in jazz 291–2 Trinity College of Music, London 296 Tristano, Lennie 307 Turgenev, Ivan, Home of the Gentry 167 Turks, in Caucasus 56 Turner, J.M.W. 59 twelve-note (twelve-tone) technique and Gubaidulina 286 and serialism 245 controversial 245 description 245–6 devised by Schoenberg 245–6 Schoenberg on 246 Tyner, McCoy 307 Uchida, Mitsuko, on Schubert 89 Una corda see pedalling USA United States Marine Band 294 see also individual cities USSR, repressive policies Gubaidulina 285 Ligeti 272 Prokofiev 255 Shostakovich 264 purges 255 Valdemossa, Majorca 116 Valencia, Spain 216 Végh, Sándor 46 and Brahms’s Sonata for Piano and Violin, op. 78 148 on Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no. 1 101 Velásquez, Consuelo, ‘Bésame mucho’ inspired by Granados 217 Venice, Italy 45 Verbunkos see recruiting dance Verdi, Giuseppe 194 Verlaine, Paul, ‘Pantomime’ set by Debussy 208 Viardot, Marianne 185 Viardot, Paul 185 Viardot, Pauline 185 Victoria, Queen 94 Vienna, Austria 33, 35, 42, 45, 48, 68, 72, 74, 87, 118, 214 Kärntnertor Theatre 45 Theater an der Wien 65 Village Vanguard, New York 310 Viñes, Ricardo 228 on Ravel’s ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ 229 Virginals 2 Vysoká, Bohemia 171


INDEX Vivaldi, Antonio 17, 20, 45 Vogl, Johann Michael 78 Vuillard, Édouard 227 Wagner, Cosima 137 Wagner, Richard attacked in manifesto of Brahms and Joachim 146 anti-Semitism 97 Debussy on 199 identified with ‘New German School’ 142 in films 342 influenced by Liszt 134, 137 influence on Fauré 185 influence on Grieg 181 influence on Messiaen 267, 268 Jewishness in Music 97 on Felix Mendelssohn 97 relationship with Liszt 137 Satie’s reaction to 211 Das Ring des Nibelungen Tchaikovsky attends at Bayreuth 168 Tristan und Isolde 137 influence on Messiaen 268 ‘Tristan chord’ compared with Scriabin’s ‘mystic chord’ 220 Wagnerism in France 211 Waller, Thomas ‘Fats’ 301, 302 Walter, Anton 33 Walton, Cedar 307 Warsaw, Poland 105, 109, 118, 119 Weber family 33 Webern, Anton influence on Boulez 276 influence on Gubaidulina 286 taught by Schoenberg 253, 254, 255 Weimar, Germany 106 Weir, Judith 332–5 The Art of Touching the Keyboard 332–5 influence of Brahms 334, 335 inspired by Couperin 333, 334 Weir on 334 compared with Kurtág 333 Master of the Queen’s Music 332 piano concerto compared with Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto 333 like concerto grosso 333 Weir on 333 piano writing influenced by harpsichord 333 Weiss, Julius, teaches Scott Joplin 294 Welsh, Moray, on Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano 209

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill, Nocturne in Black and Gold 315 Whiteman, Paul commissions Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue 313–14 influence on Ravel 235 whole-tone scale/harmony Albéniz admires use by Debussy 194 in Adès 337 in Debussy 199, 200, 202 in Gubaidulina 286 Wieck, Clara see Schumann, Clara Wieck, Friedrich 121 Williams, Mary-Lou 307, 311–12 Wilson, Teddy 250 Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues Rzewski 321 Pete Seeger 321 women composers Beach, Amy 217–19 Mahler, Alma 5 Mendelssohn, Fanny 5, 94–6 Mozart, Anna Maria (‘Nannerl’) 5, 42 reasons for neglect 219 reasons for scarcity 5–6 Schumann, Clara 5, 131–3 Szymanowska, Maria 105–8 see also gender issues; jazz women pianists and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto 69 and Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 142 and Rachmaninoff ’s Piano Concerto no. 3 225 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 164 Austin, Lovie 311 Beach, Amy 217–19 Bley, Carla 313 Brackeen, Joanne 313 Genzinger, Marianne von 35 Hardin Armstrong, Lil 311 in jazz 310–13 Jansen, Therese 37, 38 Jones, Norah 313 Krall, Diana 313 McPartland, Marie 312–13 Mendelssohn, Fanny 94 Mozart, Anna Maria (‘Nannerl’) 5, 42 Mullins, Mazie 311 Rahman, Zoe 313 Schumann, Clara 5, 131–3 Scott, Hazel 312 Simone, Nina 313 small hands and fingering 6, 114, 132 Szymanowska, Maria 105–8


INDEX Tomes, Susan see individual entry Williams, Mary Lou 311–12 see also gender issues; jazz women violinists Strinasacchi, Regina 45 see also gender issues Wordsworth, William 59 World War I 241 and Bartók 248 and Debussy 207, 208 and Ravel 231 France enters 231

World War II and Ligeti 271 and Mayerl 298 and Messiaen 266 and Prokofiev 255 and Shostakovich 261 and women jazz musicians 313 Wörthersee, Austria 148 Yamaha pianos 33 Zen Buddhism, and Cage 269