can’t see the forest

Schiff plays Bach, BWV 826

Posted in András Schiff, Bach, Classical Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 3/21/09

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From a 2000 performance at the Mozartsaal at Schloss Schwetzingen, Germany, pianist András Schiff performs J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor (there are a couple of small ‘blink-outs’ in the video, but no worries):

Part I – (Sinfonia, Allemande)

Part II – (Courante, Sarabande, Rondeau, Capriccio)

With the likely exception of the Goldberg Variations (Schiff’s take on those, b.t.w., can be found here), this particular partita is my personal favorite among Bach’s clavier works. It is in the rich, dark key of C minor that we might associate with Mozart’s Sonata K. 457, or Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, but there is nothing mournful, angry, or ominous about the tonality in this instance. To me, it suggests perhaps the green abundance of summer on an overcast day, with bees buzzing all around.

While my first pick is Martha Argerich’s live recording for Deutsche Grammophon from ’78 or ’79, Schiff’s interpretation is superlative in several respects.  The balance and interaction between voices is handled with astonishing grace, Schiff makes excellent use of tone color, and the tempos are sensible and not romanticized. Schiff’s agréments in repeated sections are clever, creative, and cleanly executed. His reading of the Capriccio is a bit on the heavy side for my preference, but it is as texturally clear and as colorful as any of the other movements, so I don’t complain. All in all, a masterful performance.

It was the Capriccio, actually, that first drew me to this partita. It’s a complete masterpiece in miniature, and full of technical and musical problems for the performer, but also represents Bach at his most whimsical. Here’s an Argerich performance from Verbier last year.

Horowitz plays Schubert

Posted in Classical Music, Horowitz, Music Videos, Piano, Schubert by Curtis on 3/17/09

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The eight Impromptus (Op. 90 & 142, D. 899 & 935) of Franz Schubert represent the finest in early-Romantic character pieces for the piano. They are elegantly crafted, diverse in mood and expression, and they showcase Schubert’s unique sensitivity as a melodist. The title suggests music of an improvisatory character, and there are great moments of spontaneity, but the pieces are carefully structured and balanced.

From YouTube, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89) here performs the Impromptu in G-flat major (Op. 90, No. 3). The video is a little out of synch with the audio, but it’s well worth the listen.

Horowitz could play the thunderous virtuoso very well. The depth of his artistry is even more apparent in intimate, lyrical music such as this. The command of tone color and the crystal clarity of the texture even at a pianissimo evidence amazing technical control. Horowitz’s imaginative and perfectly executed phrasing and shading–in which, at times, each note of the melody seems to simply melt into the next–identify him as one of the last of the great romantic pianists from the old tradition. The ability to sculpt melodies and harmonies in this sonically delicate but emotionally powerful fashion is a lifelong pursuit for many pianists.

Hallelujah and Happy Holidays to You

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(The choir Cantillation and the New Baroque Ensemble, Orchestra of the Antipodes (Sydney, Aus.), Antony Walker, cond.)

And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. –Rev. 19:6

And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. –Rev. 11:15

And He hath on His vesture and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. –Rev. 19:16

Although Händel’s Messiah was first performed in April 1742, not December, and though it in fact treats the entire life of Jesus, not merely his birth, still in Anglo-American culture the oratorio has become inexorably associated with the Nativity, particularly this most famous number of the work, No. 44, Hallelujah.

Legend has it that, upon completing this movement, Händel called for his assistant. The assistant found his master in tears, clutching a few pages of manuscript. Inquiring what was the matter, he was answered by Händel thrusting the papers at him and exclaiming, “I have seen the face of God!”

King George II is said to have stood when he heard this chorus performed for the first time, possibly to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his king just as subjects of the British king were required to stand when he did. An alternative theory postulates that his gout was simply acting up at that particular moment.

The performance above is the most credible I have found on Youtube. If you have a sharp ear, you may notice that the pitch sounds about a half-step low. This is because period instruments are being used, and in the Baroque period, standard tuning was significantly lower than it is today. Both the choral ensemble and the orchestra are small—today’s performances of Messiah tend to favor ever larger forces for grandiose effect, a trend that began as early as Mozart, who himself arranged the oratorio for a larger orchestra. But this performance is quite authentic and is the closest to how it might have sounded in Händel’s time as you are likely to hear.


Warming up for pianists

Posted in Classical Music, Music, music education, music instruction, pianists, Piano by Curtis on 12/22/08

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pianist-2In the same way that we can trick ourselves into thinking that a fast food combo meal will fill us up just the same as a home-cooked dinner, pianists can come to believe that a practice session or performance without a solid warmup is as fulfilling as approaching the task at hand with seasoned fingers.

But whether your milieu is casual cocktail music or rapturous Rachmaninoff, a good warm-up is always of paramount importance. Though I haven’t tested the hypothesis empirically, I truly believe my professor would send me out of the studio if ever I came in with cold hands.

What is the best way to warm up? Well, there isn’t any such thing; we’re all different musicians with different needs. However, the following program has worked well for me over the years, and hopefully you’ll be able to adapt it to your preference:

  1. Bach chorales (5 min). I suggest beginning with one or two chorales with which you’re familiar, and then sight reading at least that many more. Pay attention to balance, bringing out the melody, and highlighting harmonically important moving parts in the lower voices. Aim for a legato melody and well-shaped phrases while using the pedal sparingly. Nothing beats these chorales for getting you in a musical frame of mind—they are musical gems and their richness and motility make them superior fare to simpler hymn-tunes.  I have yet to come across an edition of the chorales online which is presented in two staves (for ease of reading at the piano); some excellent and thorough online editions are available, but they are in open, four-stave configuration. If you like that sort of thing, go ahead: it’s good training! Otherwise, I would recommend the Breitkopf u. Härtel edition of the chorales for pianists, available from the publisher or your local sheet music dealer.
  2. Major and minor scales and arpeggios (5 min). There’s no need to run them all every time. Just pick out, at random, perhaps four majors and a few minor scales of different qualities. Practice them hands together over at least four octaves, and begin very slowly, concentrating on evenness of touch and tone so that no notes ‘stick out’ with a harsh attack (this is much, much harder to do than it sounds). Then gradually pick up speed, and feel free to try varying articulations, including all legato, all staccato, and 2-legato + 2-staccato (dee-yah tah tah, dee-yah tah tah). Also, many pianists like to practice with the hands moving in opposite directions as well as in tandem. Be creative and make it interesting, but never lose focus on producing a world-class tone with a carefully calculated touch.
  3. Warm-ups for finger coordination and independence (5 min). A wealth of such exercises exists in the literature; here I have included two which I have found very helpful since an instructor at the Mannes College of Music shared them with me many years ago.
    1. Finger coordination. Here (PDF file) is a warmup in thirds that will really get your fingers in sync and increase blood flow in your hands. The hands mirror one another as the exercise ascends chromatically through all twelve major keys. I have precisely notated the exercise  up through several keys; you can pick up the pattern from there and continue upward as far as you’d like. Be aware that this will tire your hands quickly until you’re used to it, so take things slow and don’t continue if you feel fatigue. You can slowly build over many sessions until you’re able to complete a full cycle, and the payoff will be noticeable, guaranteed.
    2. Finger independence. Below is a graphic of diminished chords arranged to use all ten fingers—click it for a good view. Begin by playing and sustaining the first chord. While still depressing all the other keys, lift the fifth finger of each hand as high as possible (without pain!) and sharply strike the corresponding keys (the outermost notes of the chord) several times; then do the same with the fourth, third, second, and thumb. Work back outwards to the fifth finger, and go on to the next chord. You can continue upward by half-steps for as long as you’d like. You’ll find the fourth finger the most difficult, I’d wager, as it is weaker than the third but is connected to it by musculature. Challenge yourself, but don’t overdo it to the point where it causes pain, by any means. This is one of the most effective and succinct exercises for finger independence I’ve ever seen.

(click for full view)

Altogether, the fundamentals of a good warmup should last between 10 and 20 minutes. Anything less would be uncivilized, and anything more might risk overkill. More extensive warmups may be advisable in performance scenarios, but remember that the point of a warmup is not to be long, but to be thorough and effective. Over-warming will never compensate for unpreparedness, unfortunately for us.

Hopefully these ideas will have a positive impact on your rehearsal and performance. Comments are welcome! In a future post, I’ll share some practice tips—for both jazz/pop and classical playing—that have helped me become a more efficient, orderly, and expressive pianist.

Death by Clarinet

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clarinetThere is something about the clarinet that kills. Behold the murder weapon.

Both Mozart and Brahms, two of the titans in the German Classical tradition, composed works for the instrument shortly before their deaths. Brahms penned his Trio for Piano, Cello, and Clarinet, Op. 114, the B minor Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, in 1891, and produced the famous Two Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, in 1894. These works were followed only by the Vier Ernste Gesänge and the Chorale Preludes for Organ before the maestro from Hamburg left us in the spring of 1897. Prior to them, he had composed no major works specificially featuring the clarinet.

We see much the same pattern with Mozart about a century earlier: the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, appeared in 1789, and was followed by the Clarinet Concerto, K. 622, in 1791. A few months later, Amadeus was dead. Some say it was typhoid, some say cirrhosis. I say it was an especially acute case of clarinettitis.

In all probability, it’s just coincidence, of course. But regardless of the mood of the music, there is something about the reedy, expressive timbre of the clarinet which is decidedly autumnal. It is, I would venture to say, the most expressively versatile of all the wind instruments, owing to the ease with which the clarinet can handle technical passages, and the striking differences in tone quality between its various registers, from the sombre chalumeau, to the plaintive, slightly nasal timbre of the middle clarion, to the piercing, playful, somewhat exotic sound of the altissimo. Nevertheless, just as the flute infuses everything it plays with springtime, and the oboe and bassoon have always suggested to me the languid flourish of high summer, so the clarinet seems to invoke the falling leaves and first snows with every passage.

So it is only appropriate that, when Mozart and Brahms perhaps unwittingly finished their careers with some of their finest instrumental writing, they chose to devote it to the clarinet.

mozartMozart’s works for clarinet are the result of his collaboration with clarinetist Anton Stadler (1753-1812), a Viennese musician renowned for his expressive, voice-like tone. Both the Quintet and the Concerto were written with the basset clarinet in mind, an instrument very similar to the modern clarinet but with a longer body and extra keys allowing a significant downward extension of its compass. They are typically performed in slightly revised editions on modern instruments which cannot handle these extended low notes (as below), although, in recent years, ever more performances and recordings have been given on period-style instruments.

Here is the famous German clarinetist Sabine Meyer performing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, with the Hagen Quartet:

(1) Allegro

(2) Larghetto

(3) Tempo di menuetto

(4) Allegretto con variazioni

Those familiar with the Clarinet Concerto will note the striking parallels, particularly in the first and second movements: the figuration of the clarinet line in the first movement of the Quintet is almost identical to its analogue in the Concerto (for instance, in the use of arpeggiated dominant seventh chords), and the haunting, beautiful second movements of each work are extremely similar in form, content, and mood.

brahmsJust as Stadler spurred Mozart, so the Meiningen court clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907) inspired Brahms a century later. In fact, Brahms had decided to end his career as a composer altogether with the String Quintet No. 2, Op. 111, until he heard Mühlfeld’s exquisite artistry! No greater complement than this can be given to a performer, methinks.

To mix it up a bit, let’s have a few different examples of Brahms’ work for the instrument. First, a very nice rendition from a young artist, Robyn Cho, with Greg Millar, pianist, of the first movement (Allegro amabile) from Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano No. 2, Op. 120, No. 2. This sonata—and especially this particular movement—is one of my favorite works of classical music, representing the composer at both his most piquantly expressive and his most astute craftsmanship. Not only are the themes of rare and outstanding beauty, they are woven together brilliantly and capped off by a peaceful surprise ending that leaves listeners breathless. Notice that, rather than merely relegating the piano to oom-pah accompaniment, Brahms allows it to communicate as an equal partner with the clarinet.

Now, a performance from Hungary of the first movement of the Trio for Violoncello, Piano, and Clarinet, Op. 114. The audio quality is fairly good and the performance superb and well-balanced:

And, finally, just to keep Mozart on his toes, we close with the final movement of Brahms’ own Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. This example—the artists are unknown, but good—represents the clarinet at its most autumnal.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the composition of these masterworks, let us be thankful that their composers lived long enough to create such wonderful, generous music for the clarinet, and that they were inspired to do so by the work of fine artists. Music such as this was instrumental—my, what a terrible pun—in bringing the clarinet out of the orchestra pit to center stage, where its full powers in the hands of capable performers are best displayed.

Un peu de l’impressionnisme: la peinture et la musique (painting and music)

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Impressionism began in Paris during the 1860s, among a small group of artists who departed from the approved style of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. These breakaways–including Manet and Renoir–preferred to paint landscapes and scenes from everyday life rather than historical and classical themes, with emphasis on atmosphere, texture, light, and mood rather than realistic perspective and detail. Slowly and steadily, their tribe expanded and began to garner public attention. The term ‘impressionist’ was coined in the 1870s by an unkind critic, but the name stuck, and eventually applied to a larger group of artists of rather disparate styles.

The term was applied even more loosely among composers, particularly some of the more adventurous French composers of the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, among whom Debussy and Ravel are the best known. Debussy is the composer whose mature style could be most closely identified with that of a painter such as Monet, although Debussy never agreed with being called an Impressionist. In general, it can at least be said that, while Impressionism now means too many things to mean a whole lot of anything at all, it does at least connote groups of post-Romantic artists and musicians, primarily identified with France, whose works represent a significant step away from the historically grounded norms of their predecessors toward a more sensuous, abstract, and yet more immediate mode of expression.

[click pictures to view full versions]

Bazille - Paysage à Chailly

Bazille – Countryside at Chailly

Jean Frédéric Bazille (1841-70) came from a well-to-do French family. In 1862 he came to Paris to study medicine and fell in with colleagues such as Renoir, Monet, Manet and Sisley to form the original core group of Impressionist painters. With these students he honed his landscaping skills at Fontainebleu and in Normandy, but Bazille became best known as a figure painter.  He was killed in battle in the Franco-Prussian War, while leading a charge against a German position.

DebussyPrélude a l’après-midi d’un faune

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was perhaps the most famous French composer of the fin de siècle, and certainly the most widely recognized of the so-called Impressionist composers. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11, and in 1884 won the prestigious Prix de Rome for composition from the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the same institution from which Manet and his crew had emerged. Debussy frequently disagreed with his elders, who disapproved of his headstrong, avant-garde style. Early Debussy shows the marked influence of Wagner and César Franck. His mature style began to emerge after approximately 1895 and is embodied by the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a tone poem for chamber orchestra that earned Debussy momentous notoreity. A brilliant pianist and conductor, mostly of his own works, he endured a turbulent romantic life until his death of cancer.

Sisley - Ferry to the Ile-de-la-Loge

SisleyFerry to the Ile-de-la-Loge
Alfred Sisley (1839-99) was a French painter of English parentage who began painting in Paris in the 1860s chiefly after the model of Courbet. He came to consider himself an Impressionist, although his style is some ways more realist and conservative than his contemporaries. While influential among his peers, Sisley failed to achieve fame and fortune until shortly before his death.

Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending

Ralph ({rafe}) Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an English composer, the son of a vicar and a great-nephew to Charles Darwin. He took up the violin at a young age, but did not begin seriously composing until after his 3oth year. He was a nationalist composer, inspired largely by English folksong, but his harmonizations and orchestrations are frequently Impressionist in character. Vaughan Williams was a favorite of the young Princess Elizabeth and enjoyed a good deal of popularity in his life; his 6th Symphony received more than 100 performances in its first year.

Renoir - Garden at Fontenay

RenoirGarden at Fontenay

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of the more famous French Impressionist painters. As a boy he worked in a china factory, where he was hired to draw designs on fine porcelain. Like so many of his peers, Renoir emerged from the studio of Charles Gleyre and achieved his first major success with the exhibitions of 1874. Predominately a figure painter, Renoir is known for his bright colors and candid scenes of daily life.

Delius – Irmelin Prelude

Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was an English composer of German parentage who spent most of his life in Florida and France. Delius’ music is preoccuped with natural and philosophical themes. Though little-known during his life and not faring much better today, he was a prolific composer whose music is full of color and drama, and he was a champion mood-setter, as the example above illustrates. Delius died following a struggle with syphilis which consumed much of his later life.

Cassatt - The Banjo Lesson

CassattThe Banjo Lesson

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American Impressionist painter and close associate of Edgar Degas who spent most of her career and France. Born into a wealthy family with a busy travel itinerary, Cassatt entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age fifteen and was exhibiting in Paris soon after. She is chiefly known for portraying intimate moments in the lives of women and children. Late in life Cassatt traveled to Egypt, where the beauty of the native and ancient art stunned her so that she frequently felt incapable of working afterwards.

RavelMiroirs: III. Alborada del gracioso

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer variously described as an Impressionist and a Neo-classicist. He grew up in extreme southern France, where he was influenced by Basque folk music. A brilliant young pianist, Ravel concentrated almost exclusively on composition after entering the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Fauré and befriended avant-garde composer Erik Satie. Ravel quickly became one of the very most popular French composers of his day, along with Debussy. Ravel could be Romantic, but his mature style combines the best of rich, vibrant Impressionist colorism with the formal elegance of the high Classical style. This is not to mention that he was to other orchestrators what Michael Phelps is to other swimmers—a complete master of almost supernatural stature.

Manet - Bar at the Folies-Bergères

ManetBar at the Folies-Bergère

Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883) was probably the most important early Impressionist in Paris. His earliest paintings, particularly Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon the Grass), were rallying points for the genesis of the movement. Manet’s parents were minor aristocrats, but Manet grew up to become anti-establishment to the core, especially in artistic matters. He was encouraged not only by fellow painters, but by literary figures such as Emile Zolá and Charles Baudelaire. Manet’s revolutionary brand of realism is sometimes credited with beginning not only the Impressionist movement, but modernism in painting more generally. Though renowned today, Manet was not viewed favorably by most critics in his time.

DebussyLa fille aux cheveux de lin

Monet - Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise

MonetHaystacks at Chailly, Sunrise

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is today almost certainly the most famous and widely printed of the Impressionists. Best known for his plein-air landscape painting, Monet was intensely occupied with the subjective effects of lighting and mood, and frequently painted multiple works based on the same natural setting or theme, but each seen in different light, different weather, et cetera (such as the Haystacks Series, from which the above example is taken). As a youth Monet preferred to paint scenes from life rather than copying the works of the masters, as did more traditional students. Later he studied in England, where the landscapes of Constable and Turner were influential to his development. His 1872 work Impressions: Sunrise helped give the name to the Impressionist movement. Monet enjoyed considerable success in his old age, living in a beautiful estate in the Paris suburb of Giverny which provided the subject matter for much of his later work.

Ravel – String Quartet No. 1 in F: II. Assez vif – Très rythmé

Rosemary Brown – Just Writin’ it Down

Posted in Classical Music, Music, myth, paranormal, psychic, Science, strange, weird by Curtis on 9/27/07

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Rosemary Brown (1916 – 2001) relates in her autobiography:

“The first time I saw Franz List [sic] I was about seven years old, and already accustomed to seeing the spirits of the so-called dead. For some reason he never said who he was that morning. I suppose he knew I would eventually see a picture of him somewhere and would recognize him . . . He then said: ‘when you grow up I will come back and give you music 1.'”

Rosemary BrownMany years later, as a mother and widow in South London, Brown went on to produce several hundred compositions, most of them short piano pieces. She claimed the music was dictated to her by the spirits of deceased composers, certainly to include Liszt. Brown’s parents and grandparents were allegedly psychic, and she considered herself to be a spirit medium.

Brown was the subject of television broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s, through the course of which she was tested in various ways (none at all satisfactory in proving her claims to be a medium, but certainly demonstrative of her skill as a composer). Her compositions have been scrutinized by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodney Bennett, and experts generally were impressed with the quality of Brown’s work but did not believe it to constitute proof of her claims 2. What can be said with certainty is that each work does exhibit stylistic features that are characteristic of the work of its alleged composer. It has been written that similarities were less evident and sometimes absent in the large scale features of extended works. The composers, we are told, “spoke” to Brown in English, though most of them had not spoken English proficiently in life. “Why shouldn’t they go on learning on the other side?” Brown is supposed to have quipped.

Franz SchubertRosemary Brown described Franz Schubert’s singing voice as poor—she probably did not realize that, in fact, Schubert was given a prestigious scholarship for his singing voice as a young man and sang in the choir of the Vienna Imperial Seminary beginning in 1808. Perhaps a few hundred years below ground does terrible things to one’s voice.

Brown claimed to have had no formal music training, and very little informal training. She had completed “two years of piano lessons and a couple of halfhearted trips to the opera,” and a neighbor once related that she “could just about struggle through a hymn” at the piano3.

Because Brown styled herself as a psychic medium and because of their own metaphysical beliefs, many accept that Brown was effectively transcribing the works of dead masters through some sort of spiritual telepathy. Since classical music is an area of strong, career expertise for me,  I would like to discuss Brown’s work from a musical standpoint and point out some non-musical issues that are problematic for the “spirit medium” explanation.

Ultimately, the phenomenon of Brown’s music is simple to explain if one understands that it is extremely unlikely that Brown was as musically ignorant as she purported to be.


Bach Outside the Box

Posted in Bach, Classical Music, Music, music education, Piano, Uncategorized by Curtis on 3/19/07

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J. S. BachJohann Sebastian Bach (ca. 1685-1750) is one of the most revered composers in the Western tradition—ironic since, in his own time, his music was widely considered gothic and outmoded. Fifty-some years after Bach’s death, Beethoven called him the Urvater der Harmonie (roughly translated as “grandfather of harmony”); and the scientist Lewis Thomas once wrote of how we Earthlings should attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”

Any keyboardist with experience in Bach’s music knows that one of these “harder truths” is the transparent, exposed nature of his keyboard works. The lines are clear, delicate, and perfectly balanced. Even the tiniest instability or trepidation in execution tends to be amplified. And yet, in terms of performance practice, there is little, if anything, that is clear about Bach’s music—everything from such basic considerations as tempo to the finer details of melodic ornamentation is up for debate.

I have a good deal of experience in interpreting Bach’s keyboard music, and I’m decently versed in most of the classic recordings of his output. My relationship with Bach began in fear—when I thought of him, I pictured a marble bust possessed of the most somber and repugnant of visages. But now that I’ve gotten to know him better (in a process that happily continues to generate more challenges than it conquers) I’d like to take the opportunity to make a few good-natured observations about practicing and performing this demanding but warmly rewarding and three-dimensional body of work.

Practice Makes Perfect.

Yeah, yeah. But seriously—in the case of Bach’s music even moreso than that of the classical and romantic composers, it is supremely important to be methodical and deliberate with one’s practice routine. When approaching a piece for the first time, always take things very slowly in terms of rehearsal tempo and in terms of the pace of digestion. You will save time by learning things right early on, for Bach’s dense textures can be unforgiving and you may find deprogramming your mistakes to be discouraging.

Sublime independence of the fingers was Bach’s greatest asset as a performer because his music is almost exclusively contrapuntal in texture. A melody singing above a progression of block chords or a simple accompaniment figuration, while not unheard of in his work, is rather rare—you will be juggling multiple melodies juxtaposed against one another, and each voice must retain at all times its distinct identity and character. Carefully observe the values of notes and rests; hold the long tones for their full durations, regardless of what might be going on above or beneath them. Remember, each voice is independent; your hands are a choir in this music. If you cannot mentally keep track of each of these independent lines as you rehearse, chances are you’re going too fast. Slow down! You’ll thank yourself sooner than later.

Pay close attention to fingering. That point generalizes to practically all keyboard music, but, once again, the contrapuntal texture of Bach’s music will more severely punish illogical, jumbled fingerings than the works of, say, Mozart. If you practice slowly and cautiously enough, you’ll find that the most workable fingering patterns suggest themselves. It’s not necessary to have at your disposal an edition which enumerates fingerings for each and every figure—I tend to distrust textual fingering patterns simply because hands are unique. It is well worth remembering that Bach’s own fingering, from all indications in the historical record, would be considered in some respects unorthodox by the editors and pedagogues of today. In rapid passagework, Bach was not afraid to pass the third finger over the fourth, the fourth over the fifth, or the index finger over the thumb. All in all, Bach used his thumbs very little—but that doesn’t mean you must do the same. It’s just to demonstrate that there is wide latitude in choice. Find patterns of fingering that sound smooth and feel reliable. Those are the correct ones, whatever they might be. Don’t move on from a given passage until you settle the matter!

Ornamentation shouldn’t be a big deal.

Autograph manuscript of Two-Part Invention #8The ornamentation found in various editions of Bach’s keyboard works seems to be one of the most frustrating obstacles for performers everywhere, both novice and advanced.

A very great deal of what we know about how to interpret those pesky little squiggles comes from Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, writing in his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing the Keyboard.) But much of this information is in turn open to interpretation, as there are of course no contemporary recordings—only texts.

The principles of notation were somewhat different and a great deal less standardized in Bach’s day than in Chopin’s, for instance. Compared to his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, Bach left relatively little to the imagination in terms of melodic decoration. His notation was more exact. Compare his ornamentation with that of Couperin, and you will see what I mean. He left more room for play in his slower works than in the more sprightly pieces, as was the custom, but generally Bach was mercifully clear in his intentions with regards to ornamentation.

I haven’t the space to go into great detail, so I’ll advise a couple of key principles: first, I recommend that you always begin by ignoring the ornamentation marks. As you become familiar with the melodic lines, you’ll likely find yourself experimenting with different types of figurations. If you’re unsure—or not feeling very creative—many editions make specific recommendations about how to execute specific ornaments. Secondly, remember that any interpretation, however authoritative, is merely that—an interpretation, a recommendation. By listening to various recordings of Bach’s music, one can “get the feel” of what baroque ornamentation is all about. As in most creative pursuits, first we imitate and then we begin to synthesize. But until you’re ready to tackle those squiggles, why not leave them be?

Tempo and dynamics are largely up to the performer.

Personally, I find it quite irksome to open an edition of Bach’s keyboard works and find the pages full of crescendi, diminuendi, accelerandi, and ritenuti. These are all editorial suggestions—please remember that! The fluctuations in volume to which the piano lends itself were not possible on Bach’s native instruments, the clavichord and harpsichord. He would have relied on registration changes and differences in timbre from one keyboard of the harpsichord to the other for tonal and dynamic variation, so any dynamic indications one comes across in an edition are, while perhaps grounded in good musicianship generally, merely editorial opinion.

Much the same is true of tempos. Becoming familiar with various recordings of a given work is especially helpful in judging tempos. For example, the picture above is of the composer’s manuscript of his Two-Part Invention Number 8, which is generally played at a very sprightly tempo—but there is no allegro or vivace written, correct? Traditions of performance carry a certain weight, but you shouldn’t be afraid to play any given piece at a different tempo from one you might have heard elsewhere, if it suits you. There are guidelines imposed in Bach’s suites of dance pieces, because they are dances in an established tradition—a sarabande is a very slow and stately dance, while a gigue is, well, a jig. Outside of these generalities, there is no real authority of substance on tempo in Bach’s music. Be creative! Be daring! Just be sensible.

Rubato—the elusive art of expressiveness in subtle changes of tempo over the course of a given phrase of music—is something that is widely regarded as out of place in Bach’s music. Particularly in his keyboard works and works for other solo instruments or small ensembles, I see no reason why this should definitively be the case. I don’t think you want to allow yourself the same liberty of rush-and-drag in a Bach fugue that you might in a Liszt rhapsody, to be sure; but retarding at the end of a phrase or giving the tempo a little push during the more harmonically tense passages of a piece should not be taboo. Again, use good judgment and refer to recordings from established masters of the repertoire. Wanda Landowska, one of the most famous interpreters of Bach in the 20th Century, once told a friend: “You continue to play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” While I wholeheartedly respect Madame Landowska’s musicianship, she was herself no stranger to theatric hysterics in performance. Let her play Bach his way. You play him your way. Actually, I consider that to be sound advice!

Special considerations for the piano.

Thomas Jefferson's HarpsichordAs we said, Bach’s native instruments were the harpsichord and the clavichord. He did try out an early pianoforte made by Gottfried Silbermann while visiting Dresden in 1736; according to secondhand reports, he found the action stiff and the treble too weak, and so he continued to use the instruments with which he’d grown up. He visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam in 1747, and played on several specimens in the king’s vast collection of the then-novel contraptions, remaining unimpressed. The keys would have offered much more resistance than Bach was accustomed to, and the wooden-framed instruments of the 18th Century lacked the sonority and clarity of tone that 19th Century developments brought to the piano.

Apart from their very different timbres, the most prominent differences between the harpsichord and the piano are that the harpsichord is not capable of dynamic shading according to the velocity of attack on the keys, and that the piano features a sustain pedal whereas the harpsichord does not. Many purists believe that, since Bach wrote for the harpsichord, when one must commit the cardinal sin of performing Bach on the piano, one should firmly cross one’s feet beneath the bench and one should never indulge in such follies as a pianissimo or a forte.

I find this idea absurd. Because Bach’s music is highly contrapuntal, and because its harmonies are based on transient melodic juxtapositions, I would say that one should be very careful about applying the sustain pedal—and especially cautious not to use it to “cover up” technical faults that can be resolved by the fingers! But, used sparingly and cleverly, I think the pedal can add a good deal of pleasant sonority and singing tone to the music. Just don’t use it to hide rough spots.

With respect to dynamic contrast, nothing can really be said that hasn’t been said already. The principles of sound musicianship and reference to quality recordings are all the guide you’ll need. I like to think that Bach, had he cared to familiarize himself with that upstart child of the harpsichord, would have taken judicious advantage of both the piano and the forte. Why shouldn’t we?

Why Bach? And where to begin?

Many fellow musicians fail to understand my enthusiasm for Bach. His music, particularly in the United States (for some reason), is often viewed as “mathematical” or “mechanical,” of the most value as technical fodder. I think that such a dour perspective is frequently an artifact of viewing Bach from this side of the Romantic era, and such prejudices are quickly cured, I’ve found, upon careful listening to great recordings of Bach’s music in various media. Those whose only experience with Bach consists of plodding through a four-voice fugue at the keyboard, those who’ve not heard Bach played masterfully by great artists, tend to be less inspired by Bach than those who are “in the know,” so to speak. Of course, then again, music is a subjective thing. No one composer or historical period of composition is going to appeal universally to everyone.

Aside from purely aesthetic considerations, Bach’s music has a great deal of historical value. No other composer has served as a primary inspiration to so many other musicians—Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Frank Zappa, and Yngwe Malmsteen were all devotees, among countless others of note. Bach is a composer’s composer because, through all of his work (and he was astoundingly prolific), he maintained the highest standards of craftsmanship while never degenerating into the realm of the unmusical. Even in his great Kunst der Fuge (“Art of the Fugue”), a dizzyingly technical exploration of musical theory if ever there was one, there is profound artistry and eloquence.

For the beginner just becoming acquainted with Bach’s keyboard music, I recommend starting with the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach; if this fare does not prove sufficiently challenging, I suggest moving on to the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and some of the less dense preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Once you’ve opened that venerable tome, there can be no turning back from Bach!

Bach sheet music online (public domain editions — keyboard music and much more)

Glenn Gould plays Bach (video from Youtube — wide selection. Glenn Gould played Bach in his own unique and often controversial style)

More Chopin

Posted in Arts & Entertainment, Chopin, Classical Music, Music, Music Videos, Piano by Curtis on 11/28/06

Here is Chopin’s Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3; my performance still needs a bit of work, particularly in the more technically challenging middle section, but I have a horrible phobia of being video-recorded so this might be the best performance the camera gets out of me. Sorry about the mistakes and about the unfortunate sound quality. Increasing your treble and decreasing your bass might help a bit on that second count.

Of this piece, a technical study in bringing out a melody over a busy accompaniment that tends to muddy it—as well as an exercise in broken diminished chords—Chopin is reported to have said: “Never again shall I find such a melody.” Five-measures-long phrases are adventurous even for a daring dandy such as Chopin, but the asymmetry is barely perceptible. This piece is often given the nickname “tristesse,” meaning ‘sadness,’ because it has the character of a melancholy remembrance of better times gone by, the longing escalating into an angry panic in the middle of the piece and then returning to something approaching satisfaction in the final phrases. We might never know of what Chopin was thinking when he wrote this little jewel, but the emotional progression is made quite tangible thanks to his pen.

A Piece of Chopin

Here, from yours truly, is a performance of Chopin’s Mazurka in G minor, Op. 17, No. 1. Let me tell you—you have to attend some pretty fancy music schools to learn to bob your head to and fro this way, and they also teach you how to grow your bangs just so. Actually, I didn’t even realize I did that. But the camera doesn’t lie, apart from the spooky strobe-light effect for which I can offer no legitimate explanation. And who doesn’t love playing Chopin in baggy street clothes? Tuxes be damned. Seriously.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer of French and Slavic ancestry. He spent virtually his whole career among the artsy folk in Paris in a sort of self-imposed exile from his homeland, which had in his youth become largely property of the Czar. The mazurka is a Polish folk dance which Chopin raised to the level of an art form—it is in triple meter like the waltz. But whereas the waltz is usually felt with a strong emphasis on 1 or 3—ONE two three, or one two THREE, the mazurka usually accentuates the second of the three beats in each bar. The melodies and harmonies of the mazurka are also more typically Eastern than befits the Teutonic mirth of a good, rowdy Viennese walzer. This particular example is neither lengthy nor technically difficult, but it’s a beautifully wistful and consummately Slavic melody that is always a pleasure to play.

The family cockatiels sure seem to like it, as you might hear in the background.