Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chopin Ballade No. 1

One of the greatest pieces of all time. What I love about Chopin's ballades is that they are like fingerprints - no two are alike. Each of them is individual and unique to each person. This is probably just stating the obvious, but I think it's still worth mentioning: all of the ballades begin harmonically ambiguous. They all open in unison (the 3rd a single pitch and all others at the octave). I really enjoy this mystery in the beginning, and the key areas that are established from here on out, some pretty distantly related, are ingenious.
After listening to three anonymous recordings of the first ballade, I have decided that pianist #3 is probably my favorite (followed very closely by #1), and pianist #2 was my least favorite, though not to discredit the merit of his recording. #2 took a much different approach than did #1 and 3, and I found myself enjoying the other two more.
What struck me the most about #1's playing is the beautiful way that he phrased the theme. Rubato, phrasing, sound, etc. - everything was so naturally crafted so as to bring the listeners through every single turn in the melody. Even as momentum picked up in the music, the melody was always present, and the pianist followed every line. This dedication to the melody was present in all sections of the ballade. From the very beginning through climactic sections such as the A major statement, the motion of the music swirls to acknowledge each detail. I do not feel that this detracted from the overall structure of the piece though because #1 knew when to conserve and when to let loose. For example, in the big A major section (which is so fulfilling to play, by the way), he played his heart out. At this point, this was the most significant moment yet, and the preceding sections were all treated in preparation for this glorious statement of the theme. I think that good balance and pacing are maintained throughout with give-and-take measured in appropriate respect to the piece. As for the coda, WTF? I love how aggressive it was, although for me it was a bit too fast. But seriously, good for him. Whoever he is.
The big overall difference in #2's playing is that I think he paid less detailed attention to the smaller sections of the ballade, such as the transitions and the more subdued thematic statements. Much of his playing is rather conservative, in a way so as to "save" himself for where it really counts. In the beginning he really concentrates on the motivic quality of the theme; his playing was weighted to the repetition of that C every time. To me, his rubato and pacing are not as natural as #1. He chose to bring out different notes and different lines, which are effective, but just not as desirable to me. #2 does not let loose as early on as does pianist #1 (for example, the transition immediately following the first presentation of the A theme). While listening and wanting more, I was thinking to myself, "Perhaps he's saving himself for something more to come later?" And this is exactly what he does. Much of his playing strikes me as more straightforward with maybe less attention to detail. To me this is a little unnatural and is less pleasing. One thing that really struck me is the build up to the big A major section. The drastic playing of the rests were a bit strange (or I guess just different), but I really appreciated the tension that was created here. It's like, "Wait for it...wait for it..." and then the A major section arrives. This is where #2 really lets himself go. The entire rest of the piece before this were all in preparation for this moment, which explains the conservative approach in the beginning. #2 is clearly more interested in the overall picture and therefore does not get too carried away in the smaller sections. His playing of the coda actually sounds playful to me somehow. Cool.
#3 was captivating right from the first note. I really like the inflection that he used in the A section - his use of rubato and slight changes in color were very effective. The impression that I got from #3 is that each section of the piece was its own individual scene. He seemed to notice each moment more than pianist #2, and perhaps even more than #1, which created a slower paced approach than the other two. By this I am not referring to tempo. There is still an overall structure in tact though - build up to the significant moments (A major, the B-flat section before the coda) is still achieved. It just seems that a bit more attention is paid to each detail, and this is certainly not a bad thing. #3's playing of the coda was my favorite of all. It was exciting, the pacing of it was good, and he had excellent clarity. Also a live performance - geez!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Variation form...a cop out?

At times yes, but not always. Some famous variation form pieces: Goldberg Variations. Cop out? Certainly not. Diabelli Variations? Also a no. Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses? Not a cop out. Clara Schumann's Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann? Perhaps. Is it true that a composer writes in variation form when he/she has no inspiration to come up with a better idea? In most instances I would guess no because there are plenty of respectable variation pieces out there.
Mendelssohn in his Variations Serieuses comes closer to the great and famous Goldberg and Diabelli than does Clara Schumann in her Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann. Thinking back to our studies of the Diabellis last semester, Beethoven achieves an elevated state of the theme through altering texture, tempo, character, etc. (In this case he actually took something trivial and made it better). After a certain point, the theme was barely even recognizable anymore. Mendelssohn, like Beethoven, also used a fugue in his variations. (Interesting, eh? since this piece was written for the Beethoven Monument in Bonn). Neither Mendelssohn's fugue nor his trajectory throughout the piece is quite that of Beethoven, but I still find a lot of merit in his work. Throughout the piece the theme is preserved and can always be perceived, yet through changes in setting, character,
texture, and sometimes harmony, it does not get old. Mendelssohn remains rather conservative in the beginning, but by the 3rd variation (staccato chords and octaves) the original idea is almost completely changed. It is the harmony and contour of this variation that recall the theme. I appreciate that Mendelssohn is able to take us to a different place in each variation. One of my favorites is variation 13. The theme is blatantly obvious at this point, but I find it to be a refreshing return after exploring all of the different ideas that were just presented to us. Mendelssohn makes the variations his own. Don't you think that variation 11 sounds like a song without words?
While I respect and enjoy Clara Schumann's variations, they do not hold my interest to the same degree. She is not as experimental as Mendelssohn is, and she does not venture too far from the theme. It is always heard with relative clarity throughout the variations, and she even returns to the original idea of the theme a couple of times (variations 3 and 6 lie in the same vein - homophonic, more static than the others). There are some exciting moments of virtuosity though. Variations 2, 4, 5, and 7 illustrate the Bravura technique that I mentioned in my presentation. I can imagine that Clara wrote such variations for her own enjoyment while performing.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Teaching a Song without Words

I selected Mendelssohn's Song without Words Op. 53 No. 2 for this assignment because I think that it is pedagogically useful in teaching a number of elements of piano playing:
1) Two against three - the duple and triple rhythms swap between hands so that a student can learn to play both on either side.
2) Project the melody over the bass over the accompaniment - the student will learn how to separate and layer different voices.
3) Balance voicing within one hand - melody in RH with accompanimental chords underneath, or bass in LH with chords on top.
4) LH melody - project over the RH, for a change.
5) Use of the same texture (and similar melody) for different moods and characters - joyous at first, then the same texture is maintained but becomes dramatic later on.
6) Changing each repetition of the melody to add contrast and variation.
I would take the following steps to teach each of the above techniques:
1) First draw the rhythm so that the student can actually see how the beats line up. Using simple lines can show how the rhythm is intertwined. Next tap the rhythm and count, "1, 2 + 3." If counting does not make sense to the student, words can be supplemented instead. Sometimes sentences help students remember certain rhythmic patterns, such as "Tim is-my-friend," in this case. I would then have the student play the two against three rhythm out of context using a C major scale (something for which fingering does not matter, to make it easier). While practicing on the scale, have the student realize that if he/she is playing the rhythm correctly, notice that when triplets are in the RH, it will become farther and farther apart from the LH; when triplets are in the LH, it will soon catch up to the RH (when ascending). After all of this the student should be ready to put the rhythm into context.
2, 3) Layering voices - first show the student how to locate three different voices. The beginning is easy - RH melody is one voice, LH has two voices, bass and accompaniment. Ask, "Which one has to project the most? The least?" At the beginning of the piece, the teacher will have to teach the student how to play one hand more loudly than the other. Again, take this out of context to start. Going back to the C major scale, have the student try to play the RH more loudly than the LH, and then the reverse. In context, have the student play his/her LH alone. The bass should ring out more, and the accompaniment should be in the background with even an sound between the notes of the chords. Practice this without pedal playing the chords continuously while trying to match the sound for each one, pianissimo. Then separate the parts by playing the melody with the bass only, then melody with the accompaniment only, then LH bass and accompaniment while singing the melody (for advanced students only). When the accompaniment chords and melody come together in the same hand, first separate the two voices into two hands so the student can hear the difference between the parts. Then practice them together in one hand under tempo without pedal, trying to project the melody and maintain an even sound in the accompaniment.
4) When the LH has the melody, first practice the LH melody with just the counter-melody in the RH, eliminating the accompaniment for now. Then the melody with the chords and no counter-melody. And finally put all three parts together.
5) When the mood changes but the texture and melody remain virtually the same, explain to the student how the previously subordinate parts of the texture will have to come more to the forefront to support the melody and add more volume and tension in the more dramatic moments. Even though the texture is actually the same, it needs to appear fuller. Play out more, but still try to retain the hierarchy among parts so that the melody can still be heard.
6) Use dynamics and rubato to make a contrast in repetitions of the melody. On the first page, for example, there are two repetitions of the opening melody and secondary melody. Give suggestions such as a slight ritard going into the reappearance of the primary melody, and an increase in dynamics to make the restatement more emphatic. Leave it up to the student to decide how to change future repetitions.

Each student should have some basic knowledge of the composers and of the pieces that they are studying. My student should know such things as Felix Mendelssohn was German, he came from a wealthy, educated family, he was very close to his sister who was also a pianist and composer, etc. As for the music itself, students should know that the titles of these Songs without Words were not actually written by Mendelssohn but rather by editors. Also, they are called "songs" for a reason - they are vocally inspired. Keep this in mind while playing, and try to create a vocal texture, melody and accompaniment.

In order to stimulate the imagination of my student, I would always ask him/her first to describe the piece first before offering my own impression. But if I have a completely unimaginative lump of a student such as myself, I suppose that I would have to create some kind of story or scene for my student to follow. The beginning is so joyous. To me it sounds like the story of a young couple in love. It's spring time, they're in love, and they are out enjoying themselves and the beautiful nature around them. During the forte passages you can see them running and laughing, and the piano parts are the tender moments that the young couple shares. Time passes, though, they start to drift, and they become short with each other. This is depicted by the minor mode, but the texture and melody are much of the same, giving the impression that they are perhaps both looking back on their better times in scorn. But it doesn't last long, and soon enough they realize that they miss each other, and suddenly they're back together and in love again. A happy ending.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Schumann G minor sonata

Why has it taken me so long to write about the G minor sonata? When one thinks Schumann, I'm willing to bet that he/she does not think "piano sonata." The sonatas are just not his best works. Even our own beloved professor said that Schumann's best pieces were those that are not entitled "sonata." I don't find the G minor sonata as inspiring as the other pieces by Schumann that we have studied.
I can't discredit it altogether though. I imagine the first movement must be fun to play. One of those pieces that just feels good in the hands. That's one reason why I love playing Schumann. I think that his music, although it's not as pianistic as Chopin for instance, just physically feels good to play.
The second movement is beautiful. The melody successfully conveys the "Autumn" reference, a song on which this movement is based. The third movement is an energy-filled scherzo ("Beethovenian energy"). Schumann seems to explore the range of the keyboard more than usual in this movement.
Perhaps it's just the last movement that I struggle with. It is an impetuous perpetual motion movement, which usually I can appreciate, but for some reason I am less than impressed with this one. Aside from the brief moments of contrast provided by the lyrical sections, there is not enough variation to hold my interest. Seems like a beast to perform.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Schumann Fantasie

Writing a post about the Schumann Fantasie is a bit more difficult for me than writing about the other Schumann pieces we have studied in piano lit. Part of the reason for this is that I am less familiar with it than I am with such pieces as Carnaval and Papillons, but also something about the Fantasie is inherently confusing to me. I just don't grasp it as easily as I do the others. I thought at first maybe this was due to a lack of continuity, but it is no more lacking than his other pieces. And he does achieve continuity through repetition, if nothing else (probably A-G-F-E-D, reference to Clara, too).
I think that there are certain qualities to the piece that make the Fantasie less tangible to me than others. While listening I subconsciously was thinking of it as a sonata and thought to myself, "Why did he not reverse movements 2 and 3?" Even though it is labeled as a fantasy, it does have some sonata-like characteristics (three movements, repeating themes and motives, etc.) Clearly the key areas could not have been switched since the 2nd movement is in Eb, but aside from that, the 2nd movement to me seems like a grand finale in the wrong place. I love the chordal theme of this movement - it is the Schumann whom we all know and love. The energy of this movement is appropriate to that of a finale, and the 3rd movement would serve well in the middle - a vocal melody with accompaniment.
After listening, I do not get the sense that this is a deep lament for Clara. For starters, it's in C major! Not exactly the key that I would have chosen as a lament. Clara's secret theme, though, is in D minor. Since Schumann intended to hide this reference to her, perhaps he also decided to mask his true feelings inside this minor motive within a major movement?
On a side note, Arnaldo Cohen's recording of this piece is awesome. It's so exciting, and I love how he is able to follow every single line. This piece is all about layering, textures, and counter-melodies, and Cohen brings out the different lines so beautifully. It's not over-done, if you know what I mean. Not too much attention to detail, but just enough so that the audience can notice all of the intricacies of the music.
I have come to love Schumann and want to play more of this music, but I think that I'll leave this one alone for a while.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

introduction: the social order and music - summary + reaction

The nineteenth century saw an expansion of society (political, social, and industrial advances) that had significant impact on the lives of musicians and the music that they wrote. Mechanical inventions of the eighteenth century were expanded upon, such as those of transportation and communication, both of which aided in furthering the music industry. As music became more widespread and readily available, the public concert genre soared to new heights. Audience sizes grew, and performance halls and theaters instituted promotional procedures such as memberships and subscription concerts. The increase in recitals stimulated music sales, which in turn helped to improve publishing. This expanding market gave rise to new developments in instrument manufacturing and distribution, which led to more demand for teachers and performers. As a result, conservatories were founded in every important city in the nineteenth century.
These developments were accompanied by rapid change that created problems and tension for some. Composers turned to folk idioms as a means to escape from the ever-changing reality in which they now lived. This was a way for composers to promote music and melodies that were characteristic to their own countries - evidence of the beginnings of nationalism.
Patronage served a different role than it had in the previous century. With the rise of the solo virtuoso as well as a larger, more educated audience, patrons no longer had the same control over the types of music that were written, as they did in the Baroque and Classical eras. The growing concert attendance gave composers the freedom to compose whatever they pleased.
With the Revolution period of the nineteenth century came the rise of the individual and increased political and social freedom. It was at this time that music began to be composed as independent art works just for the sake of being art.

If you think about it, at the structure of our present society, not a whole lot has changed since the nineteenth century. Advances in technology continue to be made, but now at a rate so rapid that we have become obsessed with it. Machines have become so precise that they are beginning to destroy the work force (grocery store self-check outs ring a bell?). Never mind cell phones - they are slowly starting to control our lives. How many people do you think cannot go a day without their phones? I feel bad for that person in the restaurant whose date is talking on his bluetooth during dinner!
I imagine that factory work in the nineteenth century must have been pretty wretched. Difficult labor, tiring, long hours.... But someone had to do it, and it was for the benefit of the rest of society that these people labored. Think about the war that we are experiencing right now. I haven't the words to try to describe what our soldiers are dealing with for the benefit of the rest of society, but someone has to do it. I can't think of anything else more noble.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Kreisleriana + Carnaval

Audiences always love Carnaval, but Kreisleriana is a lesser known work and, in my opinion, is widely underplayed. But I guess I can see the reasons for this. One has to decide if he/she performs for the audience or for himself. I have played Carnaval but never Kreisleriana, and I can imagine that it could be one of those pieces that is more enjoyable for the performer than for the audience. Not to discredit the aural effect of the piece though! It has moments of beauty that Carnaval never even touches, but it does lack Carnaval's extroverted character that pleases so many.
Both pieces are a journey, and each has its individual story. Carnaval is a journey through scenes and characters, sometimes highlighting only vague images (such as the sad + happy clowns or an evening at the ball), and other times it makes specific reference to actual people (Chopin, Paganini, and the two women whom Schumann loved). Kreisleriana, on the contrary, is much more abstract. It is a life journey permeated with contradiction and emotion. Simple forms such as binary or ternary prevail in these short pieces, symbolizing this journey. Schumann loses himself in each of the eight fantasies, yet he always manages to find his way home.
Carnaval is evidence enough of Schumann's contradictory nature, but Kreisleriana is a true display of such. Perhaps it is just because the piece is less familiar to me than Carnaval, but the brutal contrasts and adjustments in character (with no attempt on Schumann's part to reconcile this!) in Kreisleriana strike me more heavily than those in Carnaval. Kreisleriana contains a lifetime of emotions, from frenzy to bliss, demonic and haunted to ecclesiastical, even suspicious at times. In each of the eight pieces, neither beauty nor conflict can exist without the other. They are always intertwined; neither lasts long before it is interrupted by the other.