Exploring the shelves, 6: Debussy’s First Arabesque

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 April 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  3 Comments

Hardly an unknown piece, of course, but there are aspects of it we don’t often consider. For example, the pedalling! Debussy doesn’t mark any. What are we to make of that?

Some composers carefully mark where they want the pedal to be used. Some don’t mark pedal at all. Many rely on the pianist to use their common sense and apply pedal where the music seems to need it. (I’m talking here about the right-hand pedal, the sustaining pedal, which lifts the hammers from the strings and allows them to resonate.)

‘Where the music seems to need it’ is a guideline which varies from piano to piano, and from hall to hall.  Pedalling you’ve worked out in a small practice room may suddenly seem too much or too little in a large acoustic, or on a piano with a bigger tone. You have to remain open to change.

Musical scores are sometimes compared with recipes in a cookery book: an indication of how to arrive at the real thing, but not the real thing itself. I’ve always thought that a useful analogy, because we’ve all tried cooking from a recipe. We know that what we do and the way we do it is crucial. If we add or leave out ingredients, or change how long the dish is in the oven, the recipe will come out differently – and maybe not at all as the cookery writer hoped.

By analogy, it makes no sense for a composer to notate everything else but leave out their thoughts on pedalling. It’s as if a cookery writer were to give a cake recipe but leave out the sugar, arguing that ‘everyone knows a cake needs sugar, so we can safely leave them to put in a sensible amount.’

So when we look at a charming, tuneful piece like Debussy’s first Arabesque, how much sugar should we add? Or should we conclude that because he says nothing about the pedal, he wanted a light, dry sound?

It’s interesting to play the Arabesque with no pedal at all. Firstly, you notice that it sounds much more like a piece for clavichord or harpsichord – perhaps a useful thing to notice, as Debussy was very fond of French Baroque music.

Secondly, you notice that although most of the notes are of short duration, Debussy does occasionally indicate a chain of longer notes, for example in the left hand in bars 3 and 4 (see photo). If you’re playing without pedal, these longer bass notes have a quite different effect – a change of texture impossible to achieve if you’ve been pedalling from the start. I admit that it’s a struggle not to use the pedal in bar 5, the end of the phrase, where there is no sustained bass note, yet a crescendo and a slowing down….  it’s hard to achieve that ‘perfumed haze’ without the cushioning effect of the pedal.

In the whole Arabesque there are not many places where a chord or bass note is to be sustained for longer than a beat or two. Those places (eg the end of the middle section, just before the return of the main tempo) are to be cherished. On the last page, there are some long notes in both hands as the piece winds to a close – a change of texture you may miss if your pedalling is on automatic pilot.

Getting to know the piece ‘without make-up’ will draw your attention to the places where a note, a chord or line emerges from the featherlight accompaniment. When you next play the piece with pedal, you’ll probably find you have acquired a new sensitivity to its textures.

Exploring the shelves, 5: Edward MacDowell’s ‘Woodland Sketches’

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

Over the years I’ve acquired various bits of piano music as gifts when friends were throwing away stuff they never played. That’s how I came to have Edward MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches. Most people know the first number, ‘To a Wild Rose’, but the rest of the set is obscure, at least here in the UK.

Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was one of the first wave of American composers to travel to Europe to study with the European masters considered the leading lights of classical music. In Paris he was a fellow student of Debussy’s. Then he went to Germany and studied piano and composition in Frankfurt.

In Frankfurt, he played the piano in a special performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet when the composer’s widow Clara Schumann came to visit the conservatory with Liszt in 1880.  Schumann had a genius for little cameos, and MacDowell was on his wavelength. I imagine that Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) was a model for Woodland Sketches.

Liszt also makes his mark on the Sketches. The year after meeting Liszt, MacDowell travelled to Weimar to play to the great man in his home. Liszt liked him and tried to help him find a publisher for his music. Liszt’s famous virtuoso showpiece ‘Feux Follets’ (Fireflies) was surely an inspiration for MacDowell’s rather more approachable ‘Will o’the Wisp’.

After his years in Europe, MacDowell returned to New York where he became the first professor of music at Columbia University. He found it intensely stressful to run a music department in an institution where not everyone thought music deserved to be on the curriculum. One of his students remembered being told by the Dean that music was ‘a mental discipline less rigorous and possibly less rewarding than poker’. MacDowell longed for the summer holidays when he could retreat to his peaceful summer home in Peterborough, New Hampshire and write music.

‘To a Wild Rose’ was retrieved from the wastepaper basket by Mrs MacDowell, who uncrumpled it, played it on the piano and found it charming. MacDowell was persuaded to let it live. And a good thing she did, because its simple beauty has appealed to generations of young pianists.

MacDowell’s use of Italian musical terms is inventive. His pieces contain some directions I’ve never seen elsewhere: ‘Torvo, con enfasi’ (Sternly, with emphasis); ‘Con moto sonnolento, ondeggiantamente’ (with sleepy motion, undulating); ‘Quistionaramente’ (questioningly). Soon, American composers would switch to using their native language for musical directions, and one can sense MacDowell tying himself (and others) in knots with the effort to use Italian when he could have expressed himself more clearly in plain English.

One thing which gives his piano music an ‘American’ flavour is his use of melodies said to be those of American Indians or of African-Americans. ‘From an Indian Lodge’, features a solemn ‘Red Indian’ melody he had seen noted down. ‘From Uncle Remus’ has the same sort of capering humour one finds in Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’. Echoes of sad ‘negro spirituals’ float through ‘A Deserted Farm’.

Today these evocations may seem in doubtful taste, but we must remember that even Dvorak, when he was in America, made a point of including spirituals and American Indian tunes in his music as a way of preserving them. ‘The music of the people is like a rare and lovely flower growing among encroaching weeds’, Dvorak wrote. ‘Thousands pass it while others trample it underfoot, and the chances are that it will perish before it is seen by the one discriminating spirit who will prize it above all else.’

Exploring the Shelves, 4: Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 March 2020 under Musings  •  3 Comments

If you google the ‘Minute’ Waltz, you’ll find that it is a ‘song by Arthur Rubinstein’, which would have come as a surprise to Frédéric Chopin.

In the UK the waltz (in D flat, opus 64 no 1) is famous because it’s the signature tune of the long-running BBC radio show ‘Just a Minute’, a panel game in which players have to speak for one minute on a given subject without hesitation, repetition or deviation. This has cemented in many people’s minds the idea that Chopin’s waltz is supposed to last just a minute.

Allegedly, the nickname ‘minute’ – which was not Chopin’s idea – was actually intended to convey the idea of ‘small’ rather than ‘lasting for 60 seconds’, but I’ve not been able to track that down for sure. The notion doesn’t ring quite true to me. I’ve read that the piece was inspired by watching a little dog chasing its own tail. In France, it is known as ‘Valse du petit chien’, which rings truer. It was the last piece on the recital programme which the increasingly fragile Chopin played to a packed house in Paris in 1848, after an absence of six years from the platform.

The waltz is delicately constructed in A-B-A form. It begins in the right hand alone with a theme circling around a few notes in ‘tail-chasing’ fashion. When the left hand joins in with the waltz rhythm, there’s a sweet friction between the implied two-time (four quavers circling round and round) of the right hand and the three-beat rhythm of the left. After a few bars, this friction produces an energy which sends the right hand flying up to the top of the phrase before it settles back again.

In the left hand, the waltz rhythm is varied just enough to keep it from becoming predictable. Mostly the left hand chords are light and dry, but at just one place (shortly before the end of the opening section) Chopin writes a sustained four-bar rising line in long notes in the bass. In the midst of so much gentle tapping out of beats, this smooth four-bar line is like a broad brushtroke of paint in a line drawing.

The middle section, or ‘B’ section, is calmer, in a lilting mood. Although the theme in the right hand is simple in outline, Chopin varies it with remarkable skill, introducing new harmonies under the same theme each time it reappears. He keeps up the sense of duple against triple time with the most discreet of cross-rhythms. The middle section sweeps by as if in a single breath.

When I was a child, my piano teacher one day gave me the music of the ‘Minute’ waltz and asked me to come back next week and say what I thought of its nickname. This was before the days of the internet, remember, and we had no recordings of it, so I had no way of gathering information other than by playing it. The next week I reported back that it sounded horrible if played in one minute, but delightful if I was allowed to take about a minute and forty-five seconds. My piano teacher was mightily pleased with me and said that such-and-such a famous pianist (can’t remember who – possibly Rubinstein) had said exactly the same.

I still remember how proud I was of having reached on my own a conclusion that a famous pianist had reached too.

Exploring the shelves, 3: Albeniz ‘Suite Española’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 March 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  4 Comments

I asked my husband if he knew Albeniz’s Suite Española. ‘Some of it’, he said. Well, exactly.

Some of the pieces in this Suite are popular – in versions for guitar or orchestra as well as the piano originals – but some are much less well known, as I realised when I sat down with the whole book of them.

Albeniz gathered up four pieces – ‘Granada’, ‘Catalunya’, ‘Sevilla’ and ‘Cuba’ -as a tribute to the Queen of Spain in 1887. They depicted different parts of Spain through its regional dances.

‘Cuba?’ I hear you ask. ‘That’s not part of Spain!’ Well, it was in 1887.

In 1912, after Albeniz had died, an editor added four more of Albeniz’s piano pieces, ‘Cádiz’, ‘Asturias’, ‘Aragón’ and ‘Castilla’, and published all eight as Suite Española. Some of that larger set have become very well-known: ‘Granada’, ‘Sevilla’, ‘Cadiz’, and ‘Asturias’, partly because they’ve become staples of the guitar repertoire. ‘Asturias’ is interesting because it predates Debussy’s ‘Jardins sous la Pluie’, with which it shares some delicate pitter-patter effects. I wonder if Debussy had heard ‘Asturias’?

I have quite a lot of Spanish piano music on my shelves and from time to time I play through a volume of it for fun. A lot of it dates from the late-19th/early 20th century when Spanish composers were taming the rough and raw manners of peasant, gypsy and flamenco dance music to bring it into the salon. Today it’s not easy to see quite why they tidied it up as much as they did, because despite the enormous charm of this music one can feel that it is holding something back. A little of the ‘snap’ and ‘crackle’ of the original dances has gone.

I’ve got used to the Germanic ‘developmental’ style of showing that time has passed by varying the musical material when it reappears. When I play Spanish piano music, I feel impatient with its composers for not doing that. They often just repeat entire sections unchanged. It feels a little bit un-ambitious, to be honest.

But when I’m in the mood to enter its world I can feel that behind this repetition there is another way of thinking about things. This music is not fixated on ‘development’. It draws from another tradition, an older one probably, of music which goes round and round, mesmerising the listener and perhaps the players too with reiteration. One can feel the influence of a more exotic ‘linear’ music, with endless extension of lines which draw the listener gently onward.

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.