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.

What does the future for concerts look like …?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 April 2020 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  6 Comments

A music-loving friend and I were discussing the prospect of concerts resuming after lockdown. It might be months away, but most musicians are eagerly, indeed desperately looking forward to this point.

‘Trouble is’, said my friend, ‘I might not feel all that confident about going back into a concert hall after this.’ I asked why. ‘Well, I don’t fancy mingling with loads of people in the corridors, the bar, the loos and so on’, she said. ‘Also, I really don’t fancy squeezing my way along the row, past lots of people’s knees, to find my seat in the hall.’ That was a point I hadn’t thought about.

‘Another thing that worries me’, she said, ‘is coughing. You know how people always cough at concerts?’ (Editor’s note: Don’t I just!) ‘Well, they’re not suddenly going to stop coughing at concerts just because of this’, she went on. ‘Every time someone coughs near us in a concert hall, we’re all going to freak out’. I could see it was true.

‘What if everyone was wearing face masks?’ I said. ‘Who’s everyone?’ my friend replied. ‘Do you mean just the audience, or the performers too? What about singers, using all that powerful breath control to expel droplets over the front rows of the stalls? They can’t wear masks. What about wind players? They can’t either. Anyway’, she said, ‘I’m not sure if I’ve got the heart to go to a concert where the musicians are wearing face masks. It would be too weird.’

We thought about the idea of physical distancing within a concert hall. Perhaps people would feel better if they weren’t sitting cheek by jowl. Could the seating plan be re-configured? If seats are fixed to the floor, that’s difficult. Only certain seats could be sold – seats dotted here and there throughout the hall. If the seats can be removed, chairs could be set out at appropriate distances on the floor.

In both cases, however, there would be immediate knock-on effects – on box office income, on the price of tickets, on the money available to pay performers. How could concerts remain viable? How could the profession of musician …?

Most musicians, and I hope most music-lovers, agree that the future of music has to be ‘live’. But how to achieve it, post-lockdown? I think musicians and concert planners should start putting their heads together about this.

Exploring the Shelves, 8: Mozart’s piano sonatas

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 April 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  3 Comments

Over the past week or two, as a lockdown project, I’ve been playing through all Mozart’s piano sonatas. There are eighteen of them, mostly in three movements.

Mozart is my favourite composer. His piano writing is always of a high standard. After all, he was a famous keyboard player, and completely understood how to write for the instrument. Yet after playing through all the sonatas I couldn’t help feeling that, as a collection of pieces, they are not quite as glorious as his piano concertos.

As it happens, I’m also studying the B flat piano concerto K595 for a performance in … well, let’s leave that aside for now.  No concert dates are certain at the moment.

Whenever I spend time with the B flat concerto (or any of Mozart’s mature concertos) I’m astonished by the calibre of his thinking. Time and again when he ‘proposes’ something in a musical phrase and one feels one might know an answer that could be given, or a way of continuing that would be logical, his solution is better than anything one might imagine.  A surprisingly long phrase; a change of harmony that throws a new light on things. A corner turned before you were expecting it; a wonderfully simple tune popping up at a moment when the arc of the composition would seem to demand complexity.

For me, feeling awestruck by Mozart’s powers of inspiration is associated more with the concertos than the sonatas. Why would that be? He wrote in both styles throughout his career. Both tend to have the usual trilogy of movements: fast-slow-fast, or grand-lyrical-jolly. Perhaps it is that Mozart’s imagination was always triggered by contrasts in sonority – between groups of instruments in the orchestra, for example; between the sound of violin and piano, or between different types of voices in an opera.

Indeed, the piano concertos often seem like instrumental versions of opera scenes. Mozart makes beautiful play with the contrast between a lone pianist and the orchestral ‘chorus’. The nimble, silvery, quick-speaking action of the piano is contrasted with the orchestra’s heavier, richer, more velvety tones. And the psychological drama inherent in a concerto – the individual pitting their wit against the crowd – springs to life in his musical interplay.

Such dramatic contrasts are not available when writing for the piano alone. There are plenty of contrasts of texture in his sonatas, and some fabulous individual movements (especially slow movements). But when compared with the concertos there’s just a hint of flatness in the sonatas, as though the absence of an orchestra and a public stage had deprived the composer of something important.

Yet this feeling does not extend to all Mozart’s works for piano alone. Some of his stand-alone pieces – the Rondo in A minor K511, the Adagio in B minor K540 – are amongst his most sublime. So why is it that the three-movement sonatas have, at least to my ears, the tiniest flavour of duty about them?