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?

Could classical musicians be ‘radically local’?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 June 2020 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

We’re hearing a lot about the days of heedless international travel being over for classical musicians. In today’s Guardian, Charlotte Higgins does an admirable job of summing up some aspects of the situation.

It’s worth remembering that darting about to play in San Francisco one night and Frankfurt the next is quite a recent thing. Not so long ago, if a renowned musician from New York was invited to play in London, they’d spend weeks crossing the Atlantic on a boat. They’d stay in London for some weeks to make it worthwhile. And going further back in history, musicians had to cope with enormous discomforts when they travelled from city to city. After a bone-shaking journey in a horse-drawn carriage from Salzburg to Vienna, Mozart no doubt wanted to stay put for a while.

Coronavirus and its effect on public life has made us all wonder how we could do things differently. ‘The immediate future for classical music may be radically local,’ writes Charlotte Higgins, ‘with small groups of musicians bringing their art to communities outside of traditional concert halls’. Which many of us would be perfectly happy to do, if there were a way of making a living from doing so.

All through my career I have been laughed at by colleagues when I said I’d be quite happy to play all my concerts in a hall at the end of my street and be home by 10pm for a glass of wine by the fire (instead of creeping wearily into a darkened house at 2am after a long drive down the motorway). They laughed because they knew you could never get a local audience night after night in the same hall. You might be lucky to fill that hall once a year.

At the start of the 20th century, there was plenty for musicians to do locally. There was live music in hotels, restaurants, music halls, cinemas, ballrooms, theatres. There was Gilbert and Sullivan, dance, opera. Palm Court orchestras played light music one day, classical overtures the next. Lyons Corner Houses employed live musicians in all their establishments. This, of course, was at a time when in order to hear music you had to go to where someone was playing it. But those days are gone. Restaurants and hotels now use Spotify, YouTube and so on.

Now, professional performers cannot make a life by performing in the place where they live. Many of them teach, but performing is what they have trained to do and what they yearn to do. They know the audience in their home town isn’t big enough to support multiple performances by the same people. So they have to travel to where the audiences are.

Somewhere else, perhaps in many other places dotted around the world, there are audiences who like to hear you every year or two. Gradually you build up a network of those places. You have no control over how far apart they are or when they are likely to invite you, so you end up with a patchwork of concerts.

Ideally you’d get out a map and arrange your concerts in a sensible geographical order. In my experience that is rarely possible. One place only has concerts on Mondays. Another only puts on concerts in the summer. A third only has space for you 2 years from now on a particular Saturday night. You’ve wanted to play there for years, so you commit to the date. Then another concert series invites you for the night before that, 500 miles away. Before you know it, you’re zigzagging across the country or continent like a pinball.

Now that Lyons Corner Houses and their ilk have gone, there’s only one way I can see that musicians could stay ‘radically local’. For that, we’d have to borrow an idea from Scandinavia, where some musicians are employed on government schemes to live and perform in parts of the country not well served with live music. They are employed almost as if they were civil servants, but they are ‘civil musicians’, if you like.

I once met a string quartet in Norway whose job was to live in a rural region (a spectacular one) and play a certain number of concerts in the community. They were given modern houses and generously funded by the state so they could play concerts for free. Local people enjoyed having ‘their quartet’. The musicians’ workload wasn’t onerous – due notice had been taken of their need to practise and rehearse together.  Their task was to establish a presence in the community, do some work with local young musicians, and play a handful of free concerts every month.

In today’s Guardian article, the artistic director of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg is quoted as saying, “We are not afraid, because culture has great importance in the public realm in Germany and we cannot be allowed to fail.”

By contrast, we classical musicians in the UK are afraid. If only we could feel so secure!

Exploring the Shelves, 15: ‘Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 June 2020 under Musings  •  2 Comments

Here’s a neglected piece! Years ago, ‘Rustle of Spring’ was a favourite with amateur pianists, often of the older generation – ‘Uncle So-and-So’s party piece’, to be trotted out (possibly in abridged form) at parties. But I haven’t seen it on a concert programme for ages.

For something so virtuosic-sounding, some of its pages are gratifyingly – well, not easy, but possible to play. The ‘rustle’ is created by simple arpeggios rippling in the right hand while the melody flows beneath. When the action switches to the left hand, and the arpeggios become more complicated, the piece can slip out of a less secure player’s grasp. But the arpeggios can be simplified, and before long we surge into the reprise, where the effect of the opening may be enjoyed anew.

‘Rustle’ is not really the word for this torrent of notes, more like a waterfall plunging down a mountainside. There’s something quite Wagnerian about the way it bursts into being, and Wagner probably also inspired the way it ratchets up energy by repeating phrases a step higher, and a step higher still. During the reprise, you begin to wish Sinding had thought of a way to vary the material, but the piece doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Christian Sinding was a Norwegian composer who lived from 1856 (the year Robert Schumann died) to 1941, in the middle of the Second World War. He was considered the heir to Grieg, but where Grieg’s reputation has sailed peacefully on, Sinding’s has faded away.

The reason is not primarily to do with his music. In his last decade, Sinding suffered from dementia. Weeks before his death he was alleged to have joined the Norwegian Nazi Party. At a Nazi meeting he was proudly introduced as a well-known cultural figure who had joined the Party. But historians later found that he may never have signed the membership form, and he may never have understood what he was joining. A witness at that Nazi meeting remembered seeing the 85-year-old Sinding on the platform and thinking that he looked bewildered.

After the War, Norway turned its back on Nazi sympathisers. Sinding was quietly dropped from concert programmes and broadcasts. This was probably an unfair fate.  ‘Rustle of Spring’ shows a captivating grasp of Romantic piano style, but it’s the only piece of Sinding’s I’ve ever come across.

Why pianists don’t like being called accompanists

Posted by Susan Tomes on 2 June 2020 under Concerts, Musings  •  7 Comments

The other night, after watching the last in the category finals of ‘BBC Young Musician’, I tweeted that I had now watched the wind, brass and string finals and had not once heard them mention the name of any of the pianists who played with the young competitors. My tweet attracted a (for me) high number of ‘likes’, retweets and replies. Amongst the replies were quite a few which, though expressing support, innocently used the word ‘accompanist’ to describe the pianist: ‘Yes, you should always thank the accompanist!’

I tried to reply to each with a brief explanation of why the word ‘accompanist’ is a thorn in the side of most pianists, but it became too time-consuming, so here are a few observations.

Many, perhaps most of the composers who have written great ‘partnership’ music for piano and another instrument were pianists – often famous pianists – themselves. They composed their symphonies and operas at the piano. They were accustomed to thinking of the piano as the bedrock of music. In their works, the piano is the instrument which carries the musical arc from beginning to end. When writing for the piano and another instrument such as the violin, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms thought of the piano as ‘first among equals’. On the title page they called their duo sonatas ‘for piano and violin’ – not the other way round.

How society viewed the relationship between piano and violin is shown by an advert placed in a Viennese newspaper in 1789, when Mozart was living there. ‘Wanted by nobleman: a servant who plays the violin well, to accompany difficult piano sonatas.’ 

There are several interesting assumptions in that sentence. Amongst them: that the violin accompanies the piano, and that the difficulty resides in the piano part.

In 1827 (the year Beethoven died), The Gentleman’s Magazine in England wrote an obituary of a gentleman who was gifted in music and ‘accompanied his father on the violin’.

Later in the 19th century the rise of ‘stars’ like the violinist Paganini caused a shift in the way that music for piano and violin (or other single-line instruments) was advertised. Partly because of the platform demeanour of these ‘personalities’, and their well-publicised off-stage lives, the single-line instrument started to be perceived as the star. By the early 20th century we were starting to see adverts for ‘violin recitals’ in which the violinist’s name was printed in big letters, and the pianist’s in small letters. The trend continued. When LP records came in, punters got used to seeing album covers of, say, Beethoven duo sonatas with a cover image of the violinist only. The pianist’s name was on the back cover.

The content of the music had not changed. Musically, it was still piano-based. But the rise of celebrity culture, and associated promotional tricks, trained audiences to see the violinist (or whoever) as ‘the soloist’. Of course, the violin part of many sonatas is immensely difficult, but that doesn’t take away from the difficulty of the piano part in most of the classical repertoire.

The pianist became ‘the accompanist’, a switch which would undoubtedly have enraged Beethoven and co. Along with this demotion came others. ‘Soloists’ thought they should be paid more than ‘accompanists’. The switch of language had far-reaching effects.

The word ‘accompanist’ is particularly demeaning because it does not even indicate the instrument being played!  It distorts the relationship between the two musicians, implying that one of them has the ‘true’ role, and the other one has a role in relation to the first  – as in the phrase ‘man and wife’. Feminism has taught us to de-construct that kind of language, and we should do the same with ‘violinist and accompanist’.

Let me end by quoting the wonderful reply of American pianist Robert Levin when asked if he was the accompanist. He replied, ‘No, I do not play the accompano’.

Exploring the Shelves, #14: Mendelssohn finds his voice

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 May 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Volume One of Mendelssohn’s complete solo piano music is on my music desk.  Mendelssohn was an astonishingly precocious chap and wrote some of his finest music – the Octet for Strings, for example – when still a teenager. He was first and foremost a pianist, so it’s intriguing that his earliest masterpiece was not for his own instrument.

In his mid-teens he wrote a huge amount of piano music, much of it inspired by Bach and Beethoven. He was studying counterpoint and fugues, which often found their way into his pieces. Right from the start, he had an easy command of the keyboard. Swathes of notes are offered with a light touch. Some of those early pieces might have benefitted from an editor’s red pencil, but there’s something sweet about the way he feels he can have your attention for as long as it takes. You can just imagine him as a teenager.

At the age of 16 he wrote Seven Characteristic Pieces opus 7 (1825), a collection of etudes, wistful little ‘mood pieces’ , and complicated fugues dedicated to his piano teacher. You can feel him trying out styles he later used to compelling effect in his Songs without Words and his piano chamber music.

His choice of the word ‘Characteristic’ is puzzling. Did he mean characteristic of Bach, for example? Or did he just mean that each piece had a distinct character? I smiled to remember a tale I once heard about a Hollywood film session player in the early 20th century. The boys were about to record a bit of Cuban dance music for a cartoon. One of the players was caught on tape calling out to the producer, ‘Is this supposed to be typical?’

So I suppose Mendelssohn’s pieces are supposed to be typical.

I played all the way to the final one before I heard the spark we associate with Mendelssohn at his best. No 7, ‘light and airy’, is a scherzo of the kind he was so good at (and in E major, a key in which he was so much at home). For much of the piece, the right and left hands alternate as they patter about the keyboard. On the final page, a surprise: as we approach what looks like being a throwaway ending, he pulls the rug from under our feet by making an unexpected turn to a minor key and a serious mood. A deep bass E tolls as the piece’s only legato arpeggio glides up into the high treble, slows down, and hovers there.

It’s quite common to find a piece in a minor key ending in the major. Much less usual is to find a long and cheery piece ending abruptly in a minor key.

This twist in the tale was quite exciting. Many of the previous pieces in the set had seemed a bit like composition exercises, but suddenly I felt I was hearing Mendelssohn’s true imaginative voice.