Major-key music for sad lyrics

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 May 2017 under Daily Life, Musings  •  12 Comments

Last night I watched a very interesting episode of a BBC Arena series about ‘American Epic’ music, beginning with music from the Appalachian region, featuring the Carter Family from West Virginia who in the late 1920s brought the folk music of the remote hills to the nation’s attention.

The words of the songs were often sad or wistful, such as the Carter Family’s famous ‘Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow’, which tells of a grieving man abandoned by his lover on the eve of their wedding. Despite the lyrics, however, the music of the sad songs was always (or at least, in all the songs featured in the TV programme) in a major key and an upbeat tempo. I’ve noticed this with other kinds of American ‘country music’ and been puzzled by it. Perhaps I have been brought up in a different tradition, but if I were a songwriter I would find it unnatural to couch a sad song in a major key, unless I were aiming at some kind of ironical effect, such as you find in the songs of the Berlin Cabaret era.

Once or twice when listening to Italian opera or oratorio I have had a similar feeling of perplexity when listening to sad arias in robustly handled major keys.  Yet to those composers, and to their fans, there is clearly no ‘cognitive dissonance’. They don’t feel that the sad words are being trivialised by sunny harmonies.

In some of Mozart’s arias, or in Schubert’s and Schumann’s Lieder, there is a very poignant use of sad words set to major-key harmonies, but these effects tend to be transient and all the more powerful because of the way they emerge from minor-key settings, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds for a moment.

But ‘Bury me beneath the weeping willow‘ sung at a jolly trot? It’s a puzzle to me.

An afternoon of piano duets

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 May 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

Bob and I went to a big book sale today and came home with lots of ‘four hand’ duets to be played by two people sitting at one piano. We spent a chunk of the afternoon going through volumes of Dvorak Slavonic Dances, Brahms Hungarian Dances, and eventually a mad set of duets by Erik Satie whose deadpan instructions made us laugh. Who else would write instructions like ‘Better’, ‘From the corner’, ‘With the same colour’, ‘Smile’, ‘Slow down, I beg you’, ‘Do not speak’, ‘Lightly but strongly’, or ‘Very’?

As Lewis Carroll might say, ‘He only does it to annoy/Because he knows it teases’.

As we played our duets, people passed by in the street. Most were listening to music on their phones. Some of them turned their heads and looked at us curiously but without enthusiasm (I think Satie’s style has affected mine). We became aware of how much like a 19th century illustration we must look.

Piano duets were hugely popular at the time Dvorak wrote his Slavonic Dances (originally for piano duet). In fact, the publication of the Slavonic Dances made his name and changed his fortune virtually overnight because so many people bought the sheet music. Before recording technology was invented, when music-lovers had to wait until an orchestra came to their city in order to hear the latest symphonies, such works were often arranged for piano duet and published in large quantities for the domestic market. Many people probably never heard those pieces performed in any other way. Composers also wrote original music for piano duet and some of these works are highlights of piano repertoire: Mozart’s Duo Sonatas, the Schubert F minor Fantasie, Bizet’s ‘Jeux d’Enfants’, Fauré’s ‘Dolly Suite’ or Debussy’s ‘Petite Suite’.

I’ve played piano duets with lots of different people, amateurs as well as professional pianists. It’s always  intriguing how difficult it is to play with some people, yet how easy with others. There is no obvious link with how good a pianist someone is. One of my best-ever piano duet partners is a Parisian lawyer who plays for fun and has a sense of timing similar to mine. On the other hand I have sometimes played duets with eminent pianists whose keyboard style was at odds with mine, making it very difficult for us to put down chords at the same instant.

One of my favourite duet experiences was when I sat down to play some four-hand piano music with the South African pianist Lamar Crowson at Prussia Cove. We played for a while and it sped along with remarkable ease. He turned to me and said, ‘You’re a Gemini, right?’ And so I am.

EU music students still waiting for clarity on Brexit

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 May 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  Leave a comment

In the course of my teaching and coaching activities I meet lots of young musicians who have come from other European countries to study in the UK. Britain’s excellent music colleges and universities are extremely popular with Europeans, who often fund their studies through schemes like Erasmus. It’s worth remembering that ‘Erasmus’ in this context means ‘European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of European Students’.

‘Mobility of European students’: a great idea from which British students may soon be excluded.

While they are here, many European music students form support networks, chamber groups, and links to UK orchestras, not to mention personal relationships. As a result they often decide to stay and make London the base for their career. They enjoy its ‘melting-pot’ atmosphere and the stimulus of being amongst other high-powered international musicians.

They were shocked by the result of the EU Referendum, in which they were not allowed to vote. Ever since last June they have been waiting for clarity on their situation. Will they be able to complete their studies? Will their funding be withdrawn? If they are planning to stay on in the UK for postgraduate study, will that still be possible? If they go home to visit their families, will they need visas to come back again? If they stay here for the long term, will they need to apply for touring visas every time they leave the country to play a concert elsewhere? Will they even be allowed to stay here in the long term? Nine months have gone by without these questions being answered, and they understand that they are bargaining chips.

Already some of my young friends have decided to return home for good this summer. They say it is too nerve-racking to wait here in a state of such uncertainty, and their families are anxious. Just last week a young Spanish musician told me sadly that she would not have chosen the UK for her studies had she known that Britain would be outside the EU by the time she finished. These young European musicians are some of my most talented students. I feel ashamed and wish I could reassure them, but I can’t.

Restless audiences vs acoustic instruments

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 April 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

This morning I was making soup and listening to Stephen Jardine‘s phone-in programme on BBC Radio Scotland, as I often do on a Friday morning. They were discussing whether parents should restrain their children from behaving badly in public places such as cinemas, theatres and restaurants. People had strong views on both sides. Some said it’s important to get children used to going to cultural events; others said that it is not fair to let audience members’ enjoyment be ruined by selfish behaviour.

At one point they were discussing the disapproving responses that people get from other audience members. The presenter said something like, ‘It still gives me the chills to remember the looks we got at a concert when my wife’s phone went off in the middle of a Rachmaninov piano concerto.’

My heart sank on hearing this because classical music is so often used to exemplify ‘the uptight audience’. So I thought it was just worth mentioning the difference between acoustic instruments and the amplified instruments that have become ‘the norm’ for many music fans.

If you are playing an amplified instrument, and you want the music to be louder, you simply turn up the volume. You don’t have to play differently. When the volume is loud, it doesn’t matter too much if the audience is making noise of its own, because amplification can easily compete. Not so with acoustic instruments like violins, cellos, pianos, flutes, clarinets – or indeed the traditional Spanish guitar. If you want to make more sound, you have to use your muscles and your physical effort. If you want to play quietly, you have to control the instruments with fine movements.

Players of acoustic instruments spend years learning to master their range of sound. The nuances of  tone colour, from the most delicate whisper to the cry of pain, are the point of musical expression. In concert, musicians have to focus on making those nuances work. They really want audiences to notice all the gradations.

So if audience members are making a noise, eating, drinking, taking photos and obliterating the fine details of tone colour, it makes musicians feel that their work was pointless. Yes, of course we want people to come to concerts and feel comfortable, but we also want them to understand the nature of instruments played without amplification.

Embarking on Beethoven’s opus 111 Sonata

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 March 2017 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  3 Comments

It’s been on my mind recently that I never properly learned Beethoven’s final piano sonata. I’ve been performing and lecturing about the two penultimate sonatas, opus 109 and 110, but when someone asked if I’d like to do opus 111 as well, I had to admit that it isn’t in my concert repertoire.

Why not? Well, I went through a longish period when I felt uncomfortable with a certain side of Beethoven’s music: the gruff, brusque, defiant side. I didn’t really understand it and I tended to leave those pieces alone. The Beethoven I felt at home with was, for example, his Fourth Piano Concerto, which I’m practising for a concert in April (note to self: Eek! It’s April tomorrow.) But I realise it’s ridiculous not to play Beethoven’s last piano sonata, so from time to time I’ve been opening the volume at that sonata and looking at it out of the corner of my eye.

Last week, out of the blue, a friend in the US kindly sent me a DVD about the American pianist Seymour Bernstein. I learned that he had voluntarily given up a promising concert career in mid-life because of nerves and misgivings about the rightness of a solo concert career as a way of life. Since then, he has become a teacher/composer/educator with a high reputation for ‘holistic thinking’. He came to public attention when he made friends with the actor Ethan Hawke, who was inspired by a chance conversation they had about nerves and performing. Ethan Hawke made a lovely film about his mentor called ‘Seymour: an Introduction‘.

I watched the DVD last night. In it, Seymour Bernstein uses the opening of Beethoven’s final piano sonata to illustrate Beethoven at his most ‘macho’. He played the opening bars with a Beethovenesque growl. It was a strange coincidence that someone should send me a DVD with this scene in it at the very moment when I was wondering whether I had the energy to grapple with the piece myself. But in fact it’s prompted me to begin. And I look forward to learning the second and final movement, the wonderful 20-minute ‘Arietta’ with its variations.