Exploring the shelves, no 2: early Schubert sonatas

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 March 2020 under Musings  •  6 Comments

This is the second in my series about exploring some of the piano music I have neglected on my shelves.

Today’s discovery is Schubert – in particular, the realisation that he wasn’t always the effortless master he became! I sat down to play through his early piano sonatas, which are not often part of recital repertoire. (Yes, yes, I know there are newer editions, but I’ve had the one in the photo since I was a student and am attached to it.)

Schubert’s first couple of sonatas were written when he was only 18, and the next few when he was just twenty. I was surprised to find that his early sonatas gave only hints of the qualities we so admire in his mature music. Of course there are wonderful melodic glimpses, but also long stretches of rather dull writing, which has the additional drawback of being awkward to play. Schubert was never a great pianist himself, but as time went on his imagination more than made up for any ungainly patches in the piano writing.

In his first few sonatas, however, it’s as if he hasn’t quite got his imagination into gear. He was well known for his many little ‘German dances’ (loved by Robert Schumann). The early sonatas seem a bit like those German dances extended past their natural span. What seems charming and sufficient in a miniature of 16 bars can seem thin if stretched out to eight pages.

As I played through the early sonatas, I came to one where he seems to change up a gear. This was no 6, the A minor sonata D537. He was still only twenty, but this sonata shows a new grasp of shape and how to hold the listener’s attention. And from then on (with the exception of single movements here and there) it’s easy to hear the authentic voice of Schubert as we have come to know it.

Even a sublime genius like Schubert had to learn his craft! I found it touching to play some of the music he wrote when he was still searching for a distinctive voice. It was very pleasing, in fact, to hear that voice starting to emerge and then getting stronger and stronger.

Exploring the shelves

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 March 2020 under Daily Life, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

… No, not the supermarket shelves! That’s become well-nigh impossible in the coronavirus outbreak.

As we’re stuck at home, I’ve decided to explore some of the piano music I’ve had on my shelves for ages but never got around to learning.

I have quite a few volumes of piano music which I bought for the sake of one or two particular pieces, ignoring most of the others in the book. I find I have a large ‘passive library’.

So I’ve started picking out volumes more or less at random, and playing through pieces I don’t know. It’s quite enjoyable. Most of the time I feel that history’s judgement has been more or less correct – the pieces that have survived the test of time and become well-known are probably the right ones. But that still leaves a great deal of music which is pleasing and worthwhile. And occasionally I come across something I think should have fared better at posterity’s hands.

For example, there are lovely things in the later opus numbers of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – a large set mainly known through some popular early numbers such as ‘Butterfly’ or ‘Arietta’. I enjoyed discovering the Six Pieces opus 57: Vanished Days, Gade, Illusion, Secret, She Dances, Homesickness.  All have their charming moments.

I was intrigued to find that the unusual rhythmic motifs in ‘She Dances’, the skipping pairs of semiquavers in the right hand on the second and third beats of the bar, reminded me of a similar rhythmic pattern used by Janacek in his ‘Unutterable Anguish’, no 8 of the first book ‘On the Overgrown Path’.  But it turns out that Grieg came first (1893) – Janacek’s pieces were composed at least ten years later.

It’s interesting how differently the two composers use this motif. In Grieg, it’s light and graceful, probably intended to conjure up the skipping movement of ‘she’, whoever she was. In Janacek, the obsessively repeated pairs of notes are like the beats of an anxiously racing heart.

So! That’s already one interesting discovery made by randomly pulling a book from the shelf and playing through something I didn’t know. I shall try to add to these discoveries.

The impact of coronavirus on upcoming concerts

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 March 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

The coronavirus situation is constantly changing. Many people’s plans have already been impacted by it, even though in Scotland, where I live, there are just a few cases at the moment.

In the past few days I’ve had several worried concert promoters on the phone about upcoming concerts. They are naturally concerned about the well-being of their audiences. Let’s face it: classical audiences are often on the more senior side. Organisers are afraid that their audiences will stay away out of anxiety. I’ve just had two concerts cancelled, and the promoters of others have indicated that they may be about to cancel too, if their Boards advise it.

If the promoter cancels the concert, they may feel a responsibility towards the musician, though in a case like this they may say it is ‘force majeure’ and therefore not something they are obliged to remedy. Promoters sometimes try to find a replacement date ‘next season’. Which is very nice, except that it means there will be no money this month. And if I can’t make the replacement date, I won’t get the fee next season either.

Non-musician friends are surprised to learn that freelance musicians (particularly non-orchestral players like soloists and chamber musicians) usually have to buy their own travel tickets ahead of time. Often there’s an inclusive fee, out of which the performer pays for their own travel. Most of us try to economise in order not to see too large a chunk of our fee disappear in travel costs. This means that we buy economy tickets, which are non-refundable.

Friends have said, ‘Don’t you have insurance against loss of earnings?’ but nobody I know has that kind of insurance. It’s just too expensive and complicated.  I’ve heard the government outline various schemes to help this or that kind of worker through the crisis, but none of those schemes apply to freelance performers.

Whenever a concert is cancelled at short notice, I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve been practising elements of the programme, probably every day for weeks or months. It’s the weirdest feeling. I suppose it’s a bit like cooking a lovely dinner for someone who calls at the last minute to say they’re not coming.

The impact of Brexit on musicians

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 February 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel  •  5 Comments

Everyone sees Brexit through their own lens. This is mine.

When I was small, playing the piano was my favourite thing. I had heard that Mozart and Schubert came from Austria. Bach and Beethoven and Schumann came from Germany. Debussy and Ravel came from France. And so on. Those countries were just pretty pictures in books to me. At that stage I didn’t even know what ‘speaking another language’ was or what it might involve.

Eventually my family started making small forays to European countries. By then I had started learning French at school. Gingerly I tried it out in the boulangeries of Paris. The bakers smiled and handed me what I’d asked for. What magic!

My impression of those new countries was ‘What fun! They do things differently here. I like it!’ I was always intrigued and almost never disappointed (well, only about things like loos which were just holes in the floor, and even that soon changed).

We joined the EU when I was a student. I was just starting to get opportunities to play in other European countries. When I turned professional, the ease of travel to France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and Austria was an enormous plus. I started to meet musicians from ‘over there’. They came to the UK to study or perform. I and my British colleagues went over there to study or perform. Some of my new friends from Europe settled in London. Some of my British friends settled in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam or Vienna. Couples formed, people moved from one country to another, got married.

We formed chamber music groups with members from a variety of European countries. We took part in seminars and played in festivals across Europe. Orchestral players got jobs in other EU countries, including the UK. I can honestly say I never encountered any feeling that they shouldn’t be here or that we shouldn’t be there. We all enjoyed the feeling that we were part of a big family of European musicians. We influenced one another. And that was how things went on for 40 years. We took it for granted.

Now Brexit has changed that feeling. There’s talk of visas, carnets, immigration points, minimum salaries, exchange schemes closing. We don’t yet know exactly how things will pan out, but we do know it won’t be so easy for UK musicians to travel and play in other European countries. We’ll still do it, of course, but there will be barriers. And the same for European musicians coming here. Already people are saying it might be simpler not to try to do cross-European projects for a while. Too much is unknown about the paperwork and the costs.

I found myself saying to some students the other day that for hundreds of years, long before the UK joined or left ‘the EU’, musicians have always managed to travel to other countries, and no doubt they will continue to do so. But psychologically, something has changed profoundly. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.

A fine insult learned from a piper

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 January 2020 under Books, Inspirations, Teaching  •  Leave a comment

I have been reading an enthralling book, ‘A Hundred Years in the Highlands‘, written in 1921 by Osgood Mackenzie. He was the founder and owner of the famous gardens at Inverewe.

Osgood Mackenzie was an elderly man when he wrote the book and could recall childhood incidents from the 1850s, as well as many tales he was told about Highland life in the generations before.

One of the chapters is about Scottish pipers, meaning players of the bagpipe. These days, many visitors to Scotland associate bagpipes with tourist music, if I could put it like that. But in the old days, pipers were very important members of a Highland laird’s (lord’s) household. Their repertoire was an ancient heritage of tunes upon which they improvised to commemorate all kinds of occasions. They led troops into battle, and played to mark births, weddings and deaths. Senior pipers were so highly-regarded that sometimes the laird would go travelling with just his piper as his companion.

Osgood Mackenzie tells a delightful tale of an 18th century bagpiper, Ian Dall, who studied piping with the great Macrimmon of Skye.  Ian Dall and another student were taking it in turns to play a certain tune in front of their teacher, but Ian Dall was much the better.

Macrimmon asked the other lad why he was not playing as well as Ian Dall. The lad replied, ‘By St Mary, I would do so if my fingers had not been after the skate!’

This was an allusion to his fingers being sticky from eating the fish which Macrimmon had given his students for dinner (evidently they ate with their fingers).

Osgood Mackenzie goes on: ‘And this has become a proverbial taunt which northern pipers to this day hurl at their inferior brethren from the south.’

I think I shall enrol this phrase in my teaching vocabulary. ‘For goodness’ sake – are your fingers after the skate??’