Exploring the Shelves, 19: Gershwin’s Three Preludes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 July 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  2 Comments

This is probably the penultimate in my lockdown series about neglected music on my shelves. It has been a helpful focus for me during a phase when more people had time to read. As we start to come out of lockdown, it seems right to wrap it up. I’ll try to get to number 20!

Today I’m looking at George Gershwin’s Three Preludes. Not neglected, of course, but I haven’t heard them played in concert for quite a while. The three preludes are all we have of a projected series of 24 which Gershwin hoped would stand alongside other celebrated sets of 24 preludes, such as Chopin’s. Alas, he never got around to writing more than five, and two were somehow dropped along the way.

He premiered the Three Preludes himself at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan in 1926. The hotel had opened just two years earlier and was considered an icon of Jazz Age elegance. You can google photos of its gorgeous ballroom which still features a grand piano, and it’s easy to imagine Gershwin sitting at it in his pinstripe suit. It shows something about his milieu that his preludes were premiered in a ritzy hotel.

I’ve always felt that he secretly had a jazz band or an orchestra in mind when he wrote these pieces – it’s easy to imagine rasping clarinets, blaring trumpets and horns, double basses doing rich pizzicato, and a sizzling rhythm section. It’s as though the piano is being used to evoke other instruments.

Prelude 1 is probably the most successful, partly because it seems to invite a bit of swing. Number 2, which Gershwin called ‘a sort of blues lullaby’, has a sultry melody which is easier to play if you imagine your right hand is a clarinet or saxophone. In the middle episode I find it helps to imagine yourself as a singer with a deep bass voice – you can almost hear the words of his bluesy lament. In number 3, I can’t prevent myself hearing the words ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ (from Porgy and Bess) under the main theme. The piece has great energy, but the writing isn’t particularly pianistic, and as a consequence one often hears it played with more gusto than grace.

Gershwin was an accomplished pianist in a style tending towards hectic bravura. It was a very popular style of piano playing in the 1920s and had a big influence on the playing of Billy Mayerl, a Gershwin fan on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s a 1928 recording of Gershwin dispatching his Three Preludes with a sort of devil-may-care élan. Far from pulling his piano music around or lingering indulgently to show his emotions, it’s as though Gershwin wanted it downed in a single go, like a shot of whisky. Quick – there’s another party to go to!

For me, a little of this kind of playing goes a long way. I love Gershwin’s music, but have often felt there is more beauty in it than he cared to bring out when he played.

Exploring the Shelves, 18: Antonio Soler’s Fandango

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 June 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  3 Comments

Here’s a curious piece from the late Baroque, composed by an 18th century Spanish priest who was a contemporary of Scarlatti. Padre Antonio Soler began studying music at his local monastery when he was only six, and by 14 had his first appointment as a cathedral organist. He was a prolific composer of keyboard music, thought by some to have a style more varied than Scarlatti’s, but most of his music has fallen into neglect.

The piece that most often pops up today is a fascinating Fandango. It’s based on a two-bar bass pattern in implacable quavers which goes back and forth between chords of A major and G minor. With daring simplicity, Soler keeps this pattern going almost all the way through, diverting only now and then to a short episode in a different key. Over the bass pattern he devises ingenious leaps and bounds for the right hand, eventually involving both hands in complicated cross-patterns. The music is stately, but with overtones of hysteria.

The length of the Fandango is its most surprising feature; it takes about 12 minutes to play (ie about 10 minutes longer than you might expect). In a way, it seems like a Baroque forerunner of minimalism.

You constantly wonder whether Soler intended it to seem a very long piece, or whether he just got immersed and didn’t notice how many pages he had written. In a way it feels like a sort of meditation exercise, in which you focus on a word or thought to the exclusion of all else. In another way it feels like a challenge to the player: can you hold the audience’s attention for as long as it takes? You can almost imagine Padre Soler chuckling as he laid down his pen after bar 463.

But mainly it feels like the work of someone who had no interest in what listeners might think of it. It’s meant for the player; it’s something which absorbs you as you’re doing it. You can feel the long Spanish afternoon stretching ahead. How pleasant to have a cool dark room and a nice long piece to play on the harpsichord!

I once played the Fandango in a solo recital. For the first few pages, I felt the audience’s fascination. Then I started to feel that they were getting a bit restless. Then they got intrigued by how long it was, and how odd it was that it was so long. Was I still noodling around on those same two chords? It felt less like a musical experience and more like a bit of performance art. But perhaps it was never intended to be paraded in front of an audience like that.

Exploring the Shelves, 17: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Petite Suite de Concert’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 June 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Recently, at a Zoom meeting of my piano club, one of our members played Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert. It was new to most of us, but we were all struck by its charm.

I remember being puzzled when I first heard of a composer called Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Wasn’t that the name of a Romantic poet? Oh no, wait: the poet was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Was there really a composer whose name juggled those same three words? (In fact, it seems the choice of name, and its similarity to the poet’s, was a jeu d’esprit on the part of Alice, the composer’s mother.)  Then there was the further surprise of learning that Samuel Coleridge Taylor was an unusual figure in the Victorian era, a black composer of classical music.

His father was an African doctor from Sierra Leone, and Alice was his white English mother. After studying medicine in London, Coleridge Taylor’s father returned to Africa before his son was born. The boy (called Coleridge by his family) grew up with his mother and grandparents, who encouraged his musical gifts. By the age of 15 he was enrolled in the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Sir Charles Stanford, who had a high opinion of him. Soon he came to the attention of Elgar, who helped him get his music published and performed. Elgar’s great friend Jaeger, the inspiration for ‘Nimrod’ in the Enigma Variations, said that Coleridge Taylor was ‘a genius I feel sure’.

A printer’s error on a concert programme accidentally gave the young composer the double-barrelled surname of Coleridge-Taylor, a name he decided to use professionally.

While still a student he composed the work which made him famous: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a cantata for choir and orchestra, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem. Sir Charles Stanford conducted the premiere in 1898 and the work was immediately taken up by choirs of all kinds.  Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912 at the age of only 37, but in the decades after his death, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was as popular and as often performed as Handel’s Messiah. Between 1929 and 1939 there were annual staged performances of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall, with huge choirs and colourful scenery. Whenever it is revived today, choirs say they love singing this tuneful and atmospheric music.

The Petite Suite de Concert for piano (1911) has four movements, in a style somewhere between Elgar and Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). Coleridge-Taylor knows how to tread lightly; his music is sincere, but often seems to look ahead to the salon pieces of Billy Mayerl – designed to uplift rather than to stir. Its gentle array of melodies and dance episodes stay in the ear for a while afterwards. The atmosphere of the tea lounge is never far away; perhaps the Petite Suite was aimed at a certain sort of audience, but its musical appeal is wider than that.

It’s incredible to think that at this time, Stravinsky was about to unleash The Rite of Spring on the musical world.

Zoom music-making and chamber music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 June 2020 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

Zoom music-making has been a feature of lockdown. Hardly a week passes without someone sending me a link to a recording:  Zoom choirs, Zoom orchestras and ensembles, each performer singing or playing away in their own home and on their own little screen.

To create a composite whole, each person usually has to record their individual part and upload it to be combined with others. Until that’s done, nobody can hear the total effect.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Zoom music-making has brought a sense of community and positivity to many people during the lonely weeks of lockdown. It’s remarkable that such a thing can happen at all, and it’s a great use of modern technology.

However, it makes me sad to think that people may think that that’s what collaborative music-making is always like – parallel parts played simultaneously, without knowledge of one another. Because for me the great pleasure and interest of chamber music is the way we influence one another in real time as we play.

You start off by preparing your own individual part, of course. But the collaborative magic begins when you’re in the same space as the other musicians and you hear how they’re playing their parts. As their ideas emerge through the music, you might think, ‘Ah, I like that. I could join in with that colour, that mood.’  You alter the way you’re playing because of what you hear. If you have a strong feeling about how something should go, and you play it in a  convincing way, you’ll hear others altering their way of playing to join in with you, to amplify your vision.

As you hear all the parts in their proper context, you develop a sense of perspective not available when you’re practising alone at home. You may suddenly realise that your individual line is not the most important one, and you drop down in the layers of music – or you may realise that it is the most important, and you can surge to the forefront.  The tone and tempo that your fellow players choose, the varieties of loud and soft they want to try, the emotions they want to bring out –  chamber musicians send out these musical messages with faith that other players will respond constructively. In this way, the individual parts become more than separate lines – they become dynamic and inter-dependent.

It’s a bit like a conversation – a good conversation, anyway – where someone speaks and the next person’s contribution is influenced by what’s just been said, and the way it was said.

In a conversation, however, one person speaks at a time. The beauty of collaborative music is that several people can ‘speak’ at the same time, but still be responsive to the others. You’re not just saying what you want to say – you’re factoring in what others want to say as well. How you go round musical corners together, how you approach high and low points, how you can contribute to the energy of the performance – these are discoveries you make together in rehearsal, and sometimes even more so in performance.

When your antennae are finely tuned to one another, this kind of real-time adjustment and blending of ideas feels like not just a conversation, but a microcosm of the way social interaction should work.

Exploring the Shelves, 16: Poulenc’s Novelettes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 June 2020 under Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

Francis Poulenc is one of those composers whose personality shows very clearly in his music. Some composers, you sense, enjoy the process of creating a pure compositional line swept clean of their personal feelings. We may know from reading their biographies that they were complicated people, but you wouldn’t know it from their music. Was Mozart sad when he wrote such-and-such a sad aria? Or could he just write in whatever spirit he wanted, regardless of his actual mood? Some composers had such a grip on the formal beauty and logic of their music that they were able to disappear behind it.

Not so with Poulenc, whose blend of sentiment, wit, charm, and casual flippancy was probably a good self-portrait. He had many sides to his personality; the Poulenc of the religious choral music or opera (Dialogues des Carmelites) can be extremely serious. In his piano music, however, perhaps because of the piano’s association with cabaret and popular music, he let himself be capricious and mercurial.

The three Novelettes are not really a set – no 1 was written in 1927, no 2 in 1928, and no 3 came over thirty years later in 1960. The first and third Novelettes are very similar in style despite being written so far apart. No 2 is a spiky ballet which recalls Cocteau and the cheeky dissonances of the French cabaret style.

Sometimes Poulenc sets out to create a hushed and lovely atmosphere, but then can’t resist cutting through it with a callous march theme or a banal little jig. Often, when he has immersed us in warm and luscious harmonies, he cancels them with acid chords which seem to say: ‘Think I was showing you my true feelings? Ha ha! Think again. This is all just a game to me.’

At the top of the third Novelette, he quotes a couple of bars from El Amor Brujo by his friend Manuel de Falla, and takes them as inspiration for his theme. De Falla’s theme is in a swaying 7/8 time. Poulenc’s tribute is in a simple 3/8. In other words, he takes a distinctively Spanish rhythm and irons it out, making it more ordinary.

Poulenc was full of these contradictions. ‘I hate rubato’, he said in 1954. ‘ Never prolong or shorten a note value.’ On the other hand, he wanted his music bathed in lots and lots of pedal: ‘People never use enough pedal’, he complained. These two instructions are not compatible. If you bathe everything in pedal, some note values will inevitably be prolonged.

He was also strict about tempo. Three times in the Novelettes he forbids slowing down: ‘Sans ralentir’. ‘Surtout sans ralentir’. ‘Absolument sans ralentir’. All very well, but these all occur in places where his music would naturally suggest a bit of gentle leeway. With such slightly perverse guidance we’re halfway to Erik Satie’s world of contradictory instructions – designed, perhaps, to poke fun at us for taking composers so seriously.

‘Put butter in the sauce!’ was Poulenc’s advice to pianists. But sauce is not a dish on its own. What is the sauce for?