Exploring the shelves, 12: Dvorak’s Humoresques

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 May 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  5 Comments

Another find in a secondhand book sale was a volume of Dvorak Humoresques. Who knew there were eight of them for piano? I confess I only really knew the Humoresque made famous by Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and others in arrangements for violin and piano. Kreisler’s luscious ‘slides’ from one note to another ring in my ears as I think of his recording.

But the Humoresques were actually written for piano. Dvorak was in the middle of a three-year stint as Director of the Music Conservatory in New York. He looked forward to the summer holidays when he could take the boat back to Europe, travel to his summer house in Bohemia and compose without interruption. In 1894 he took with him the sketches for some pieces which, it seems, he had intended to call ‘New Scottish Pieces’. They emerged eventually as Humoresques, a title suggesting ‘good mood’ or ‘good humour’ rather than something amusing.

The Humoresques are charming, folk-like, songful, with an open character. Yet almost all of them are in ‘difficult’ keys with forests of sharps and flats. No 7, the famous one, is in G flat major (six flats). It’s quite tricky to skip about (‘Scottishly’) on the black keys without slipping off and hitting other keys you didn’t mean to hit.

When I was little, I enjoyed sightreading books of piano music, but I used to flick through the pages, checking for key-signatures bristling with sharps or flats and bypassing those pieces in favour of ones in ‘easier’ keys. It was a long time before it dawned on me that some things are actually easier to play in ‘black-note’ keys. It’s to do with the fact that the black keys on the piano lie a little higher than the white ones. If you are playing mainly on the black keys, the white keys lie ‘below’ and don’t get in your way as you move about. Conversely, if you are playing something complicated on the white keys, your fingers may stumble against black keys as you move about. So although it seems counter-intuitive, ‘black note keys’ do sometimes make the pianist’s task easier.

G flat major is the key of one of Schubert’s loveliest Impromptus (D899). Some old editions transpose it into G major, so that the music is easier to read. Easier to read, yes, but not easier to play. I learned it in G major and was mortified when I discovered Schubert wrote it in G flat. When I re-learned it in G flat, I realised that some of the rippling patterns actually lay better under the hands.

In Dvorak’s case, though, I’m not convinced that his use of ‘difficult’ keys was entirely for the pianist’s sake. His choice of six flats for the lovely Humoresque no 7 seems a little bit forced. This one probably is easier in G major, the key in which violinists like to play it. I’ve heard string players play it in various keys, actually – none of them G flat major!

I’ve often felt that for Dvorak, writing in ‘difficult’ keys had some sort of emotional meaning. It’s as though he felt his great melodic gift would mislead people into thinking that composition was easy for him. He wanted to be thought a serious composer in the classical tradition. His mentor Brahms was fond of writing piano music in ‘difficult’ keys, and it may be that Dvorak somehow associated a phalanx of sharps and flats with serious artistic endeavour.

Exploring the Shelves, 11: Haydn’s little jazz riffs

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 May 2020 under Inspirations  •  1 Comment

I do have some volumes of Haydn piano sonatas, but I confess I didn’t realise until quite recently that they didn’t contain all his sonatas. In a charity book sale, I came across a slim volume of selected Haydn sonatas which contained a couple of early works I don’t think I’d ever seen or heard. Out of curiosity, I bought it.

One of the works new to me was an early sonata in B flat,  catalogued as Hoboken XVI:2. It probably dates from Haydn’s younger years, before he got that all-important appointment to the court of Esterhazy.

All through his life, Haydn seems to have been acquainted with a succession of female keyboard players, for whom he wrote new pieces. These female musicians were prevented by social convention from playing in public, but some of them were excellent players and had opportunities within the home, or the ‘salon’, to perform to a small but discerning audience. At the time of the B flat sonata, these young ladies may have been Haydn’s pupils. It seems that he gave away new keyboard pieces without even trying to get them printed, and this sonata might be one of them.

To be honest, the outer movements – while modestly charming – don’t really hint at the inventive genius that Haydn displayed so magnificently in later works. But the slow movement was a lovely surprise. It’s a Largo in G minor, three crotchets to the bar. Those bars are generally divided into three pairs of ‘walking’ quavers, over which a melodic line undulates with an effect akin to gentle sobbing.

After eight bars, the mood suddenly changes. Still with the walking quavers in the bass, the right hand becomes skittish. And a few bars later (see photo), it breaks out into what I suppose is the 18th century equivalent of a little jazz riff. For three bars, it skitters between the quaver beats in a rhythm so complicated that I had to stare at it and do some mental arithmetic before I saw how it worked.

Once I’d got the hang of the playful rhythm, I realised how clever the phrasing is. Plodding quavers continue in the left hand but now, instead of each bar consisting of three pairs of quavers, the shape of the little riffs in the right hand divides the bar in half – into two groups of three quavers. This has the effect of making it seem as if the speed of events has suddenly doubled. The bars seem to go by twice as fast. It’s all over in a flash, but leaves behind a slightly heady feeling, as though we had just had a gulp of champagne.

In later years, Haydn gave free rein to the ‘jazzy’ side of his personality, especially in his string quartets. His late piano sonatas are full of jeux d’esprit, passages of wayward humour which some find endearing, while others find them perplexing. I like to think of them as moments when he allowed himself to go off the rails in a way which would make his friends smile.

Scotsman Sessions #30: a bit of lockdown music-making

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 May 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

The Scotsman newspaper is offering readers some lockdown entertainment, or solace, in the form of contributions from various artists who’ve recorded themselves playing, reading poetry, singing, or whatever in their own homes. There’s an accompanying article written by one of the newspaper’s critics; in my case, by music critic David Kettle.

My contribution, The Scotsman Sessions #30, went live this morning:


I recorded myself playing Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major opus 28, using just my old phone, which is fairly basic. So the sound quality is limited, but it was nice to be able to offer some freshly-made music-making to others in lockdown. Listening back to it on my phone, I wasn’t sure the sound quality was acceptable, but I later found that listening to it through computer speakers was a much better experience. That’s what I’d recommend if you can do that.

Some friends have reported that they had to submit an email address to The Scotsman before being able to click on the video. Others have been able to listen without needing to sign up. It’s a mystery. I hope you’ll be able to hear it without problems.

If you are on Twitter, you can also find it by looking for The Scotsman Sessions @Scotsman_Arts

Exploring the shelves, 10: Felix Arndt’s ‘Nola’ of 1915

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 May 2020 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings  •  2 Comments

A sad one today! In the course of reading about the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, I came across the fact that American composer Felix Arndt had died at the age of only 29 during the second wave of the pandemic in New York.  I couldn’t help being struck by this, because of course New York’s recent suffering has been in the news.

Felix Arndt was a talented pianist and composer who sailed into a career as a ‘demonstrator’ of sheet music for a New York publisher and was soon invited to make piano rolls, an early form of recording. Allegedly he made around 3000 piano rolls in a period of five years, which would equate to around three piano rolls each day, an astonishing work rate. He played new music, his own arrangements of well-known classics, and even some contemporary piano music, such as Debussy’s.

In his twenties he met a singer named Nola, who became his wife. She inspired his most famous composition, often cited as one of the first examples of ‘novelty’ piano music. ‘Nola’ is not exactly ragtime, but like ragtime it has a regular beat and a steady tempo, delivered with a twinkle in the eye. It doesn’t feature the syncopation we associate with Scott Joplin, but it has intriguing dotted patterns which work across the beat, throwing the emphasis onto different parts of the pattern. It was the blueprint for a lot of later ‘novelty’ piano music characterised by a blend of elegance and cheek.

‘Nola’ was a big hit when published in 1916, but Felix Arndt didn’t live long enough to reap much of the benefit. Ten years later, the Music Trade Review optimistically reported that ‘its popularity was immediate, demonstrating that the public, while favoring popular music, appreciates compositions of the better type’.

Someone put words to ‘Nola’ so that it would have another flush of commercial success as a song. But this didn’t really work. ‘Nola’ is rhythmically catchy, rather than melodic. The song arrangement simplified the rhythm to make it easier, and some of the charm of the original was lost (at least in my view).

You can try putting words to the original tune yourself to see how tricky it would be to sing. [A suggestion from me: ‘Isn’t it nice/to be the guy/who catches the eye/of somebody beautiful’…].

I find it poignant to think that this sort of cheery piano music was all the rage as the Spanish flu struck America.

Digesting what you’ve practised

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 April 2020 under Musings, Teaching  •  4 Comments

I mentioned last weekend that I’ve been trying to learn Chopin’s fourth ballade, a wonderful piece of music although not easy to master.

After some days of quite intensive effort, I felt like having a rest from it. Some parts of it are very difficult, and day by day they didn’t seem to be getting easier. Maybe it was too hard. I put the book aside and turned to other things (like photographing flowers).

Today I picked up the Chopin again and went back to it. To my surprise, some of the difficult bits had mysteriously improved! No longer did I have to concentrate like a maniac on every detail of the complicated fingering. Instead of proceeding note by note, or chord by chord, I found that extended passages unrolled in front of me in a natural way. Had I been gliding downstairs in the night and practising in my sleep?

I remembered that the Hungarian pianist and teacher György Sebök had once said that one should not go on and on playing the same passage over and over again at a single practice session. One should practise it no more than a few times *with attention* and then let it settle, giving the brain time to digest the information.

This is oddly difficult to do. When you are practising, you feel you’re not working unless you are actually playing. You feel you are not conquering difficult passages unless you are repeating them enough times to see progress while you’re still sitting at the piano.

However, it might be more effective to go carefully over the fingering a few times and then stop. Just as certain cakes go on cooking after you take them out of the oven, the brain goes on cooking the music you’ve been practising, when it can do so in peace and quiet.

Digesting music in silence doesn’t feel like work, however. Moreover, it doesn’t sound like work. To some extent, practising a musical instrument is a matter of demonstrating that you are doing the work – demonstrating it to your parents if you are a child, to your fellow students if you practise in a honeycomb of studios at college, to your professional colleagues backstage before a concert. I know from long experience that to fall silent during a practice session is to invite comment on the fact that ‘you’ve stopped practising’.

But have you? We know enough about the mind now to recognise that learning is a multi-stage process. We should acknowledge that things are happening in the mind even when we’re not playing things over and over. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that playing things over and over actually delays the moment when our minds can start digesting them.