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.

Exploring the Shelves, 9: Chopin’s 4th Ballade

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 April 2020 under Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

I’m trying to learn some new pieces during this lockdown. My latest project is Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. I’ve half-known it for years, but never tried to learn it properly. It requires quite a big stretch, which I don’t have, and I’ve never been sure I could get my hands round some of the chords at speed. Anyway, why not try? Nobody except the cat is feeling critical.

The very opening presents an interesting challenge. As you’ll see from the photo, it opens with a crescendo in the right hand and, simultaneously, a diminuendo in the left hand. The intended effect, I imagine, is that something in the left hand is dying away just as something in the right hand is getting started. It’s a genius idea, actually – giving the impression that the curtain has just been raised on a conversation already in progress. As the curtain rises we’re hearing the last ‘remark’ made by the left hand.

But how hard it is to do! To start quietly in the right hand with the aim of getting gradually louder, while starting more loudly in the left hand and getting gradually quieter (and both in an appropriately poetical way) feels a bit like those games where you have to pat the top of your head with one hand while making circles on your tummy with the other hand. It requires, as the Irish writer Flann O’Brien might say, ‘a wisdom not taught in the National Schools’.

It made me realise how often the instructions for volume, or volume changes in piano music are intended to apply to both hands at once. It’s natural, of course, for the two hands to co-operate in this way, so no wonder it’s the default setting for composers. Crescendos and diminuendos usually apply to both hands, harnessed together to create a single effect.

One does often come across contrasting planes of loudness, for example a melody played strongly in one hand while the other plays a quiet accompaniment. But these tend to be sustained passages where the pianist’s brain can ‘set’ the right hand to proceed at one volume while the left proceeds at another. Even when one hand has an active dynamic change going on in its line, the other hand is often steady in volume.

It’s rarer to come across a passage where a process of dynamic change in one direction is set against a dynamic change in the other direction. Such contrary voices are common in orchestral music – say, a clarinet line fading away as a cello line rises up – but not so much in piano music, where the same musician is piloting two or more lines simultaneously.

And it must be unusual to open a piece with this effect. Maybe someone will correct me, but I can’t think of an example before Chopin. He uses the effect a number of times within the piece, but to start in that way shows a thrilling kind of imagination.