Goetz's Piano Quintet: Gotta Have That Bass

The term "piano quintet" actually designates a variety of five-person ensemble combinations. As mentioned earlier, by far the most standard group involves piano + string quartet or piano-violin-violin-viola-cello. However, other groupings are possible: piano-violin-viola-viola-cello (Paul Juon), piano-violin-viola-cello-cello (Henri-Jean Rigel), piano-oboe-violin-viola-cello (Théodore Dubois), piano-flute-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), piano-clarinet-horn-violin-cello (Zdeněk Fibich), piano-oboe-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Beethoven), etc.

The standard ensemble of piano + string quartet has the advantage of matching the piano's wide range with four instruments that cover the same tonal space... almost. Truth be told, the piano actually goes more than an octave lower than the lowest note on the cello. A handful of composers have apparently felt that the strings should match the piano in the lower regions, and so have written piano quintets for piano-violin-viola-cello-double bass.

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz was a German-Swiss composer who wrote such a quintet. Take a listen to the opening of the first movement. Throughout the sombre, moiling introduction, you may be able to detect the double bass grumbling along down below. Then, at 1:34, the mood changes... (I'd suggest listening at least until 3:41, when we hit the repeat sign.)

The drama promised and forewarned in the slow introduction, bursts from its proverbial dam and flows along "Allegro con fuoco", lively and with fire! Weeeeeee! In those downward, scalar gestures that begin the section, you can really hear the double bass go. To my ears it adds serious "heft", a word I use for the sense of weight being heaved about, but also for the sort of raspy, onomatopoeic quality you hear when the double bass bow digs into the strings. This instrument reminds you that bowed string instruments make their sound by rubbing or scraping wires, hairs, guts, or other strings perpendicularly against each other, a fact that the melodiousness of the violin, viola, and even cello seem to mask.

One more example: here's the last movement, a sprightly yet still hefty sort of dance. The double bass has some great moments, adding some weight to the section marked "pesante" or ponderous at 0:37 (which is an interesting juxtaposition of weightiness and dancing rhythms), doubling the cello at the octave in the fugal section (starting 1:33, bass in at 1:41ish), the weird, trembling fade out at 2:55, and of course, the killer dash to the ending starting at 4:40.

Check out the other movements as well! Have a grounded, bass-heavy day!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: [BONUS] Creepy Waltz

I didn't do anything for Halloween this year. Penny, while adorable in her owl costume, is not big on knocking on strangers' doors nor on eating candy with her baby teeth. Plus, Jess and I consider the day only an annoying, loud, orange-and-black stepping stone to Thanksgiving, Fall's real holiday. #hewentthere #nohalloweenspirit #oldfogy

Hocus Pocus  (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

Hocus Pocus (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

However, I'll give a nod to Halloween with this little "trick and treat" (see what I did there?): a spooky waltz from Arensky's Piano Quintet. Now, I already did a post on this composition where I talked about the fugue theme from the final movement. But I couldn't pass up this fascinating moment in the midst of the second movement. This movement is a Theme and Variations, meaning, you hear a theme at the beginning and then the rest of the piece is reiterations of that theme varied in a variety of various ways. It's like someone trying on different costumes, one after the other (not unlike a picky Halloween-er).

Press play. Listen up to 0:31. That melody in the first violin is the Theme. (It's actually a French folk song from maybe the 1400s called Sur le pont d'Avignon, j'ai ouï chanter la belle.) If you keep listening after that, the piano enters, playing the theme quite clearly and prominently, and constituting the First Variation. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Now check out the Sixth Variation. It starts around 3:16. The meter has now changed from duple to triple, as heard in the "oom-pah-pah" accompaniment in the piano and pizzicato cello. Meanwhile, the piano's upper part gracefully glides about like a solitary ballroom dancer. The effect is actually rather pleasant...

But then, the other three string players enter. In unison. In long, drawn out notes. And so quietly you might not notice it until it's been happening for a while. And then you wonder how long this sighing specter has been looking over your shoulder. Eeeek!

But it gets a little creepier. Because the piano waltzer doesn't seem to realize that they aren't alone. It doesn't acknowledge this austere presence and dances on, oblivious to the ghostly melody wafting in like a chilly breeze from the other side. Double eeeeek!

And then, with a bone chilling gasp, you realize that the unison strings are actually playing the original Theme, but with the duration augmented (that is, elongated) to the point at which it's almost unrecognizable. That sweet and sad melody that you just got to appreciate from 0:00 to 0:31 appears here in ghastly form. The situation is punctuated by the continued presence of the unsuspecting (or is it complicit?) music-box dancer. Triple eeeeeek!

Anastasia  (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Anastasia (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Wow. Maybe I like Halloween more than I thought... I will say that this musical interpretation could fit in well with Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the grotesque, a term he developed in the study of Renaissance carnivals and a time when weird festivals like Halloween actually had important cultural significance. (Check out his introduction to Rabelais and His World.)

Have a Happy November!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: The Little Fugue that Could

The last movement of Arensky's Piano Quintet made me laugh. When I first heard it there was something rather humorous about ending a grand composition with a movement half as long as any of the others that starts as a powerful fugue "in modo antico" (meaning "in olden style") that runs out of steam after less than a minute. What was Anton thinking?!

First off, to write music "in olden style" during the Romantic era usually means you're about to hear some fugues. (In case you don't know, a fugue is when a melodic theme enters one instrument at a time in independent layers. It gets very dense very quickly.) Fugues are difficult to write (and difficult to listen to unless you practice) due to the very real possibility of cacophony when more than one melody is sounding at once, requiring a composer of exceptional skill. (This is part of the reason J.S. Bach, the mind-bendingest fugue-o-phile of them all, was revered in the history-conscious nineteenth century, and has remained so to this day.) So all this "in modo antico" in the last movement had me primed to expect some major counterpoint!

But... That doesn't actually seem to happen. First off, just by glancing at the average length of movements, the final one stands out for coming in at around 3 minutes, while the first three of the quintet average 6.5 minutes. Secondly... well, go ahead and give the piece a listen. Note the powerful beginning and, also, when the mood changes. I'll wait...

Finished? Ok! It's a nice piece, yes? Bold at the beginning. Then lush. Then a scintillating and joyous ending. But, what about that "in modo antico"? It starts as a long-striding fugue with a strong, easy-to-catch theme. And then at about 45 seconds, it just stops. Fugue done! And what does the rest of the movement consist of, you may ask? The lyrical middle part that builds to a lovely climax is actually a second movement quotation of the theme that is put through variations. Then the joyous part at 2:08 is a first movement quotation of the main theme complete with identical ending.

It was as though Arensky said to himself, "For this last movement I will write a fugue in the grand style of Bach! [The sounds of writing, frustrated "humpfs" from composer, the crumpling of paper.] You know what? Forget it! I've got about 45 seconds of fugue; why not just get this thing done and bring back some of those sweet Romantic-sounding moments I wrote from earlier movements?"

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as  Scriabin  and  Roslavets .

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as Scriabin and Roslavets.

That's how I heard it at first. But I've actually changed my mind. The actual fugal part of Arensky's finale may be short, but the true significance resides in the theme itself. Because if you listen to the whole composition, you realized that you've heard that theme before. Check out the first 5 seconds of the piece, a salutation in the piano that bursts onto the scene without further elaboration.

It's the fugue theme!

Now listen to a grand climax that brings the Theme and Variations movement to a fierce halt. Start at 4:20. It's the beginning of the seventh variation with some galloping triplets in the piano with the theme entering staggered first on the viola, then violin 2, then violin 1. (It's not technically a fugue, but the effect is rather dense and contrapuntal.) The intensity increases to 4:48 where, in a fit of fortissimo, the piano plays some dramatic chords, that are answered by lunging runs in the strings before everything comes crashing down in a fortississimo haze.

It's the fugue theme!

This knowledge will change the way you hear. The appearance of this odd fragment in the first and second movements will be heard as presages of the final fugue theme. And the return of sections from the first and second themes in the last movements can then be heard as simply returning the favor. The stunted last movement becomes a matter of equilibrium and retrospection. You could even say that it reframes "in olden style" to draw attention to the temporal nature of the musical experience... #mindblown

De Castillon's Piano Quintet: Just Wonderful

That's right: just wonderful! I barely have anything else to say about it. Only that Alexis de Castillon was a short-lived composer whose Opus 1 truly touches my heart. The opening melody, heard many times thereafter, suggests to me that paradoxical strength that lies in fragility, a bold yet tender embrace.

Here's the first movement played by Timothy Kwok and the Romer Quartet. I hope you enjoy.

Medtner's Piano Quintet: Coloring Outside the Lines

Lately I have been enjoying some chamber music. Commuting to school or work in Santa Barbara rarely takes longer than 15 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to listen to a favorite movement from an old standby or incrementally explore a new find.

Most recently the Piano Quintet in C Major of Nikolai Medtner has become something of an obsession. Even as I write this post there are fragments of melody spinning around in my head. I have been working my way through various piano quintets (for those unfamiliar, an ensemble usually involving piano + string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello)). Perhaps in a later post I will share some thoughts on works by Schumann, Schubert, Shostakovich (hmm... I seem to be on a [sh] kick), Stanford, and Franck.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

The Medtner stands out to me from these other examples because of his bold use of textures and colors. He has some very nice melodies (again, they are earworming my brain pretty strong right now), and I'm aware of some canonic or contrapuntal techniques, but the real interest lies in his textures, and especially in how he juxtaposes different sections.

Take a listen to the first minute of movement 1 below:

From the very first moments, the deep, arpeggiating piano punctuated by pizzicato strings has a striking effect. The oscillating harmony over a drone during this section has a modal quality that would make me want to use words like "epic" or "exotic" if my musicologist oath didn't prevent me. And just about when you get used to the sound, something different pops up: a descending figure in the piano, floating Zeus-like down on a cloudy bed of wavering strings. (To be fair, it is perhaps less Zeus-like than I thought a minute ago... If pressed, I think I'd change that to an Iris-like descent, the Greek rainbow goddess. Yeah, that fits. Nailed it! #hermeneutics)

After that interesting introduction (which comes back later, like at 6:44 and after, giving Iris a much more important role in the entire piece) the first real melody is passed around between some strings, building, subsiding, doing what a late-Romantic piece of music ought to. Then around 0:44 there is a sudden shift in harmony and the wavering strings come back in a moment that sounds like a fragment of a film score. The instruments seem unperturbed by this gravitational shift, and the piano takes up the opening melody.

Keep listening to that first movement and notice the constant shifts, especially those where the piano or strings or both lapse into shimmering filagree.

I want to highlight one more moment where the cool and calm of the piece is disrupted by a moment of utter perturbation and how the instruments find their way out of the problem. Start around 4:30 where an ecstatic and energetic chorale puts the piece in the height of self-possession. The melody starts to evaporate, flickering out with a tremolo until you are left in a rather uncomfortable silence at 4:57. The strings try to feel their way in the aural dark by striking some pizzicato matches. (It worked before in the introduction!) But this effort only rouses the piano, which strikes out in brutal gestures from the low register! The strings, giddy with fear, echo back the piano's declamation. It's hard to imagine how the music will recover from this derailment.

And then, BAM! a piercing shaft of light at 5:30! It's a brilliant moment of ornamental energy, completely shifting the harmony, reigniting the instrumentalists' focus, and returning to them their sense of unity as each take their place and set out anew. From there its pretty smooth sailing through glorious melodies until the pizzicato-punctuated ending.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's  The Golden Key .  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's The Golden Key.  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

Very nice piece. I especially love "Musica Viva's" rendition here. Check out the other two movements when you have the time. Or take a 25 minute commute somewhere (down to Ventura to visit either of their two Target locations, perhaps?) and hear all three.


M&S Project: Sigh No More (Part 1: Lyrics)

Alright. Here we go!

For the first musicological analysis of Mumford and Sons music we'll take a look at the first song from their first album, Sigh No More. As stated in the introductory post, these explorations consider the music from a variety of angles in order to tease out instances of musical communication. This initial foray considers the combined effects of word and music as they progress through time.

I'm going to take some time to really dig into the lyrics of the song in this first post. This won't necessarily happen each time, but I think it's a good idea for three reasons:

  1. Most readers are probably more familiar and comfortable with analyzing words for their meaning or meanings (poetic exegesis, if you will),
  2. Having a solid foundation in the text will help us to understand how the music works with or against that meaning, how it relates to the semantic meaning of the words, and
  3. The eventual musical argument I'm trying to make will be important for future analyses, so going slowly now will give us a leg up later.

I won't always provide the written out song texts in their entirety. In some cases, ambiguities in the words provide opportunities for multiple meanings in their interpretation and is part of what makes the song so interesting. I'll actually be arguing that ambiguities in the words make them more musical, but that's jumping the gun... When considering the lyrics of Sigh No More, there is actually something of a problem in nailing down the "official" text; a quick search online reveals a plethora of contrary variations that drastically alter the meaning of the poem from one version to the next. The version I'm writing out here is the best one that I can come up with, based mostly on my own ears and aided by a little Shakespeare. Here it is, divvied up into three sections:

I've divided the words into three sections, basing this division on rhyme schemes, meter, and poetic meaning. By grouping the words in this way, we can see the tenor or feeling of the text change from one section to the next.

"Much Ado About Nothing" by Robert Smirke (1753-1845) via Royal Shakespeare Company Collection. Dogberry seems on edge.

"Much Ado About Nothing" by Robert Smirke (1753-1845) via Royal Shakespeare Company Collection. Dogberry seems on edge.

In section A, I've underlined the lyrics that are quotations from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: "Serve God..." are Benedick's words of comfort to a dejected and wrathful Beatrice (Act V, scene ii), "Live unbruised..." comes from the concluding denouement where almost all character relationships are healed either through brotherly forgiveness or marriage (Act V, scene iv), and "Sigh no more..." is a fragment from a longer song that takes as its theme the infidelity of men ("deceivers ever") and the need of women to shrug off their defects ("by you blithe and bonny") (Act 2, scene iii). These quotations are not only plucked out of their theatrical context (while retaining some of the narrative associations for those who know where they come from), but are combined or sandwiched or mixed in with original lyrics by Mumford and Sons, which create interesting layers of reference and meaning.

What I mean by reference is what I perceive to be an ambiguity in who is speaking/singing the words at any given time. In the first stanza of section A, we hear a quote by Shakespeare, then an original line, another Shakespeare, and more original lyrics. The original words strike me as powerfully subjective and personal, as if uttered by a narrator, perhaps a narrator who is reading or listening to or recalling these lines by Shakespeare. This reflection upon someone else's words causes the narrator to insert their own commentary, and a desperate commentary it seems to be, judging by the repetition of "I'm sorry". Apparently Benedick's forgiveness does little to alleviate the narrator's conscience, but rather intensifies the feeling of guilt.

Again, in the second stanza of section A, Balthazar's song gets only two lines in before it is interrupted by the narrator who seems to identify only too closely with the culpability and fallenness of mankind, twice declaring "you know me". (Who this "you" actually is is a fascinating question!)

So, already this song has set up an interesting tension between a preexistent text and reactive commentary. Shakespeare is known as being an authoritative observer of human character, and it all seems to be too much for the increasingly despondent narrator.

The B section is short and unassuming, but actually functions as an important pivot point in the trajectory of this text. Another Shakespeare quote, "Man is a giddy thing" sums up Benedick's assessment of his own development, his changing character and priorities (Act V, scene iv). This time the narrator has nothing to add. Instead, the quote echoes not once, not twice but four times total! Repetition is very important in poetry and in music. The lyrics repeatedly declare that man is "giddy", a fun word that has roots both in "insanity" and in "being possessed by God". Benedick means here that he is duplicitous, a confirmed bachelor throughout most of the play finds himself recanting his views in the end and turning husband. Human changeability perhaps isn't all together a bad thing. Perhaps our very ability to change offers us escape from our sorrow, our impurity, and from the exposure we feel at being known and recognized as such.

Perhaps those are some of the ideas that are bouncing around the narrator's head, because as section C starts, we have moved into a very different world.

No longer quoting Shakespeare, here the contortions of the first section and the hammering of the second section give way to lyrics bursting with love, freedom, growth, alignment, beauty, and redemption. Interestingly the text does not seem to declare a happily-ever-after scenario, but simply, yet powerfully, speaks of new perspectives on the world and of choices to become "more like" that which we were designed to be. Perspectives have changed: the narrator now seems to be the one being addressed (perhaps by the knowledgable "you" that so frightened the narrator in section A?). The second stanza gives the mic back to the narrator and reveals their new understanding of the connectedness and potentiality of existence. We've come a long way.

Let me know how you think about this analysis of the poetry. I'd be happy to entertain other interpretations. Next time we will see how this lyrical trajectory plays out when put to music.

Mumford & Sons Project

In between dissertation and fatherhood I'd like to keep this blog going by starting a modest project that's been rattling around in my head for a few years now. About five years ago, in the midst of a brutal Spokane, Washington winter, my wife stumbled upon the band Mumford & Sons in the form of isolated songs from their first album (Sigh No More [2009]) played randomly by Pandora. Each song resonated deeply with us, and since that time they have continued to resonate after repeated listening. The next two albums (Babel [2012] and Wilder Mind [2015]) are filled with equally stirring numbers that at various times have strangely impressed me in a variety of ways.

I'd like to explore these songs. The thrust of this project is both analytical and interpretational: to turn my musicologist ear to a selection of songs by the band Mumford & Sons for the reason of exploring their musical attributes and nuances. My argument is that the music, both on its own and in conjunction with the words, functions in ways that carry the possibility of meaning, often complex or even contradictory meanings. The music in Mumford & Sons songs seems to communicate.

Before I get started I'd like to lay out a few ground rules:

  1. I am not a certified popular music scholar, nor am I someone who is particularly knowledgable of popular music. (It's actually a family joke. Jess finds my inability to correctly differentiate NSNYC from Backstreet Boys adorably pathetic.) So I will not be making statements about musical influences from or rankings with other popular bands or giving background information on producers, labels, or studios. I also will be using musicological terminology about which a popular music scholar or a fan might take umbrage.
  2. This is a project intended for the layperson. Analysis and critique that consist of torrents of technical jargon are ultimately an isolated and aggravating endeavor and I it is my hope that I can communicate clearly in ways that anyone can understand: the fan, the musicologist, or the curious listener. If I do end up using technical language, it will appear in [brackets]. [Musical hermeneutics should be fun!]
  3. This is not an unbiased analysis. As I've already stated, I have been cultivating a personal connection to this music for the past five years and because of that my analysis will not be free of personal anecdote or subjective interpretation. I am not aspiring to analytical objectivity; rather I seek to share my own thoughts and to reveal both how music can draw our ears into new ways of listening and how our listening can draw meanings from music in ever new and exciting ways.

There! I think this will be a pretty fun endeavor. I'm excited to have a side project that can help me engage with ideas that have been percolating for several years now. It should fit in quite nicely between translating academic German monographs and putting the baby to sleep. (Recently, Jess has discovered that little Penelope will go right to sleep as long as she's listening to Adele's new 25 album. Lights out in about 1.5 songs! #thepowerofmusic #teethingbaby)

Look out for more M&S Project posts in the next few months. The first one on the list is "Sigh No More" from the first album.

See you in 2016!

Listening to the Unknown

On December 1, 1930 a concert was held at the Glasgow-based Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. It featured a live performance by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, the highly-idiosyncratic and somewhat eccentrically reclusive English pianist-composer, playing his Opus clavicembalisticum, an extremely complex, long-winded, and demanding piece: demanding equally for the performer as for the listeners. Check out John Ogdon's 1988 recording on YouTube for a taste. Here is section five out of twelve. (Note the multiple staves!)

"The Grand Piano #3" by Colette W. Davis.  link

"The Grand Piano #3" by Colette W. Davis. link

Diana Brodie, the wife of the Active Society's president, Erik Chisholm, was present at this unique event and had the following colorful recollections.

"The music, so unlike anything I had ever heard before, was literally terrifying... Floods of notes, cascades of arpeggios, fugal subjects a mile long, yet all conjuring up the most fantastic pictures in my mind. But there was nothing I could understand.
"After about 10 minutes of this, I found myself sitting twisting my fingers in sheer misery, hoping against hope that each crescendo was the final one so that I could get out of the hall for a breath of air. But it went on and on. The whole audience was spellbound. Never have I known such absorbed listening. I really believe that, if the work had continued for 15 hours no one would have dared to leave the hall before the end. Sorabji had his audience mesmerised...
"The second part seemed to be a complete repetition of the first! My musical friends however assured me afterwards that I was quite wrong. 'Well' I said, exasperated, 'I bet there were a lot of other people in the hall who couldn't tell the difference either.'
"By the time the performance had been in progress for two hours and five minutes (never have I looked at my watch so assiduously) even Sorabji was beginning to show signs of war and tear. By now, I was beyond showing any reaction, whatever, except an occasional wistful look at the door, and praying that I would soon be at the other side of it. The old proverb 'It is always darkest before the dawn' was definitely proved to me on that memorable evening. the last 10 minutes were almost unbearable; the perspiration was pouring down Sorabji's face. It was pouring down mine too if he had but known it, only in some mysterious way I seemed to be crying at the same time, filled with a strange sense of fear and frustration. In some ways I think it must have been the same sensation you would expect to feel if a snake had you hypnotised and you were completely unable to break the spell.
"Up and down with tremendous crescendos, down and up with beautiful diminuendos (I did like the diminuendos) each crescendo raising my hopes, each following diminuendo flattening them till at last with one might cataclysmic sweep Sorabji finished playing his first and only performance of 'Opus Clavicembalisticum,' which by the way, in simple language means 'a piece for the piano.'
There was an utter stillness in the hall and then a tremendous applause broke out. Whatever one thought of the music one could not fail to admire the virtuosity of the performance.
"Slowly, so very slowly, Sorabji took out his pocket-handkerchief and wiped his face. Slowly inch by inch he lifted himself out of the piano stool and holding on to the piano lid supported himself to give an enfeebled bow and left the platform to return many times.
"Slowly, so very, very slowly I managed (without the aid of anything) to get out of my chair—I stood up, and at my feet fell a veritable bag of confetti! Unconsciously during the performance I had been tearing my programme into little bits!" (Purser, 64–65)

Sorabji (1892-1988) in 1977. (Sir Jeremy Grayson)

Sorabji (1892-1988) in 1977. (Sir Jeremy Grayson)

The demands such music places upon listeners easily justify Diana's reaction. Many musical trends that emerge in the twentieth century are equally concerned with complexity and incomprehensibility for a variety of aesthetic, intellectual, expressive, or cultural reasons. A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear a live performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire (1912) at Eastern Washington University. I took along my wife. She has not forgiven me!

  • As performers of twentieth-century musics how should we negotiate this communicative gap with our audience? Pre-concert explanations? Disclaimers? Analyses?
  • As teachers of twentieth-century musics what approaches have been most helpful in explaining the music's raison d'être to students? 
  • Is it worth the trouble? Or should listeners simply be overwhelmed by the unknown and frightening?

Purser, John. Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904–1965): Chasing a Restless Muse. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009.

Recent Publication

Exciting times: I have been published in a national music magazine! When you pick up the September/October 2014 version of Clavier Companion: The Piano Magazine, feel free to check out the Repertoire section, pages 42 through 49. The article, fancifully entitled "Prelude sets for every occasion", gives contextual and analytical information on eight little-known prelude sets from Alkan, Heller, and Rheinberger to Zaderatsky, Auerbach, and Benshoof. The editors included typeset sheet music examples as well as publisher information for those piano teachers with an eye for repertoire adventure. (Headshot on the last page curtesy of Jess Roy Photography.)

I am very happy with this achievement! Thanks go to Dr. Derek Katz for suggesting the idea, Dr. Charles Asche for publication suggestions, and Ms. Kendall Feeney for brutally honest editing suggestions/arguments. 

"The Merest Set of Blocks"

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:

  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:

  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
Retro LEGO add from  Fat Brain Toys

Retro LEGO add from Fat Brain Toys

Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!

Upon Watching "The Nose"

I took my wife to the opera last weekend. #tophatandspats The Met Live broadcast series was playing Shostakovich's The Nose, and I simply couldn't pass up this unique but admittedly bizarre experience. We prepared ourselves by reading through Gogol's short story and I attempted to lay out the musical expectations of modernist Russia and young, pre-censorship Shostakovich. (Gogol Spoiler Alert: a petty bureaucrat wakes up sans nose, finds it out in society pretending to be of a higher social class, the nose refuses to return to its rightful place, the bureaucrat is distraught at the social injustice of it all, but wakes up a few days later with it returned.)

Family friendly fun! Who doesn't love a fantastical tale of bodily dismemberment and anthropomorphicization? 

Family friendly fun! Who doesn't love a fantastical tale of bodily dismemberment and anthropomorphicization? 

Nevertheless, we were sorely unprepared for what was in store. There are doubtless many studies and essays that have been written on the piece that might illuminate the work more cogently, but as a Soviet music enthusiast, and a musicologist who's given opera a fair bit of thought, here are a few of the things that stood out:

  1. The piece is challenging from a musical standpoint. It's helpful to remember that this is the era of the poet Mayakovsky who delivered his poems through a bullhorn, screaming. The declamation is utterly violent, perhaps unmusical (especially the sycophantic or schizophrenic laughter ["ha ha ha" "ха ха ха"]), and the instrumental interludes pushed me to the threshold of pain, in their percussive, repetitious crescendos. This is difficult to handle and it's even more difficult to notice variations within the sonic world that would give subtlety to the various characters or moods.
  2. This type of music is not intrinsically bad; it has its place and communicates its message at a visceral level that few musical languages can. (Thank you modernism.) I wonder what this medium does to the subject. Opera as a multilayered amalgam of music, literature, and visual effects is generically polyglossic—a Bakhtinian word denoting the simultaneous presence of multiple discourses. I find Shostakovich's music to be dissonant with Gogol's original story, a tale that I interpret as hinging upon "decorum"; in presenting that decorum, Gogol essentially exposes its ridiculousness and shallowness, but it has to be there in the first place before it can be critiqued. Shostakovich's musical world creates a sense of musical chaos, a world in which decorum is merely a concept ("You should know your proper place") that is completely at odds with the musical mode of expression, ie. atonal screaming. 
  3. Without Gogol's restrained layer of subtle decorum (through which we see the delightful exposure of social folly), the opera feels monolithic and lacking in narrative drive. There is hardly any need for the main character, Kovalyov, to recover his nose. He already inhabits a world of bizarre relations, fragmented personalities, chaos barely held in check by some unseen social mechanism. Nothing essential changes when he recovers his body part. No decorous society (however empty and ridiculous) is resumed.
  4. This seems to be highlighted by the production choices of director, William Ketridge. He sets the scene in modernist, 1920s Russia (rather than in pre-Soviet, Imperial Russia, as Shostakovich envisioned), makes continual use of Monty Python-esque projections and visuals, and has several cast members inexplicably wearing masks worthy of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. If there is an order in this society, back to which an alienated outcast would desire return, it is completely covered up by the madness of visual cacophony. There is no impetus to return, no wholeness anywhere. (It was equally bizarre to have an actor lamenting the loss of his nose while no attempt was made to conceal it via makeup or prop at all.) In an of itself, the visual mastery was entertaining, but I found it to be extremely dissonant with Gogol's tale.
  5. Some musical moments were worth remembering and exploring further: The church scene was haunting and reminded me of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The mournful oboe music accompanying the futile attempts to reattach the nose (much like Peter Pan's fruitless attempts with his wayward shadow). And the balalaika-accompanied song of the valet, Ivan, which takes its text from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
Picasso's  Demoiselles d'Avignon  (1907), some of whom seem to be having their own Kovalyov sort of day.

Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), some of whom seem to be having their own Kovalyov sort of day.

I liked it, but would want to study the score a bit more before seeing it again, as that might make clearer the aural relationships within this stage society and open space for musical/social critique. Once again, my wife is a trooper. (Her husband has now made her sit through this AND Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I'd better take her to some Mozart quick!)

What do you think?

Preludophilia: Stanford's 24 Preludes Op. 163

Around 1918, composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, aged seventy, was overcome by a profound case of preludophilia. Hailed as a member of the "English Renaissance" (he was Irish), his lengthy public career included honorary degrees from numerous institutions, international conducting repute, training such pupils as Holst, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Coleridge-Taylor, and almost two hundred opus numbers, consisting mostly of symphonies, concertos, vocal works, and chamber works. But during the last six years of his life, he wrote preludes for the piano, two sets appearing in 1919 and 1921. Perhaps he recalled his early training in Chopin. Or maybe he felt some influence from the recently combined set of Rachmaninov, a composer often compared with him on the grounds of stylistic conservatism/anachronism. Either way, the first set, Op. 163 (thank you IMSLP) forms the topic of today's post and provides us with an opportunity to explore what may be the first prelude set in the Chopin tradition composed in the British Isles. (Ireland's William Vincent Wallace [1812–1865] wrote Twenty-four Preludes and Scales [1855] which are just as their name implies and are more in line with flashy opening gestures à la Cramer.)

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) wearing (and pulling it off) a brilliant pair of  pince nez  on a string. 

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) wearing (and pulling it off) a brilliant pair of pince nez on a string. 

Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 163 was published in 1919 in three series:

  • Series I - C,c,Db,c#,D,d,Eb,eb
  • Series II - E,e,F,f,Gb,f#,G,g
  • Series III - Ab,g#,A,a,Bb,bb,B,b

The use of Bach Order is somewhat unique at this time (the few instances of it before him are mostly German organists, Glière, and Bach himself) and could point to Stanford's German training. Seven of the pieces have picturesque titles including "In the Woodland" Prelude 13 in G-flat Major, "Carillons" Prelude 21 in B-flat Major, and "In Memoriam. M.G." Prelude 22 in B-flat minor; it is a noteworthy sprinkling of well-worn if not cliched titles in a collection of short, carefully crafted character pieces. The recording by Peter Jacobs (Priory Records 1996) takes just about fifty minutes.

Men's fashion in England around 1900. Hats are in!

Men's fashion in England around 1900. Hats are in!

I would describe this music as having "sensuous yet restrainéd grandeur." Texturally the opening C Major number has that clear, triadic, Bach-like character: a straightforward opening piece built of a texture of strong, pillar-like gestures. But by its layout and form we clearly see Stanford's lush, almost oozy harmony (lots of unexpected bVIs, unprepared modulations to far-off F#, and plenty of Gr +6s). The uniform blocks of sound become almost like bars keeping the Wagnerian superfluity at bay. Prelude 6 in D minor barely keeps itself together, hardly unified by a devious false recapitulation (in E-flat... that slips into D-flat before being mastered back into d by sheer willpower!). It could very well end anywhere and the final cadence feels a little forced, like a social formality. The last three measures of this piece do recall an important figure from Prelude 1 in C Major and could point to some sort of intermotivic relationship at work throughout the piece.

Apparently Stanford (as well as every accomplished lady pianist in Victorian Britain) grew up on a steady diet of Chopin Mazurkas, a fact that informs an appreciation of the Tempo di Valse Prelude 10 in E minor. Capricious changes of rhythm and metric emphasis, dramatic but simple melodies, and tempo fluctuations all recall the older tradition. This piece is ultimately playful, reminiscent of a salon or even a nursery tradition. Prelude 4 in C-sharp minor, one of my favorites, also has that capricious character, wreaking Puckish havoc on a 6/8 time signature, although with marked restraint. It reminds me of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, and I am reminded that Mendelssohn held a special place in the hearts of Britain for quite a while. In that vein, I see and hear an inversion of the upward figuration of Mendelssohn's Prelude 1 in E minor Op. 35 (1837) in Stanford's stormy closing number, Prelude 24 in B minorPrelude 19 in A Major embroiders a slow and arrestingly simple hymn texture with florid arpeggios in a way that again recalls Mendelssohn (perhaps Song without Words Op. 38 No. 4, also in A).

I find these pieces to be a mixed bag. There seem to be clashes between a Mendelssohn-like conservatism and a complex harmonic language that do not always make for a rounded composition. This sort of dissonance is an opportunity to think about states of imperfection. It becomes easy to think of Victorianism: its social strictures, moral failures, imperialistic anxieties, and crumbling façades. Certainly that's just one way to hear it with cultural ears, but in many ways it makes sense and gives reason to some of Stanford's more "uneven" passages.

I leave you with a recording of Prelude 6 in D minor by Christopher Howell.

Preludophilia: Slonimsky's Preludes and Fugues

Sergei Mikhailovich Slonimsky was born in Leningrad 1932, the son of the well-known "Serapion Brotherhood" author Mikhail and nephew of the prolific musical emigré Nikolai. Every genre is represented in his long list of compositions, including operas (one entitled "Mary Stuart") and symphonies (the Tenth Symphony subtitled "Circles of Hell after Dante"). His pieces make use of his experience as an ethnomusicological researcher in Russian folk musics, his improvisational concertizing à la nineteenth-century preludists, and his use of both dodecaphonic techniques and jazz styles. One word that has been used to describe his compositions is the term "poly-art", a holistic aesthetic that freely and unexpectedly combines influences from all historical periods, including popular and folk styles. More info at the Saint-Petersburg Contemporary Music Center.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky wrote a set of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key in 1994, published in 1996 (Saint-Petersburg: Kompozitor), and recorded in 2000 (Nikita Fitenko, Altarus). The CD is particularly good as it was performed under the composer's supervision and really brings to life the notes on the page. It takes about an hour and a half to play or listen to. The pieces progress in "Bach Order", that is chromatically with each major key followed by its parallel minor (C c Db c# D d etc.). Each prelude is marked attacca and various cyclical properties exist between preludes and their accompanying fugues. The majority of fugues have 3 or 4 voices with one 2-voice fugue and two with 5-voices. The fugal expositions tend to introduce the answering voice in the subdominant, and you can read more about it at this doctoral thesis by Yun-jin Seo.

There are definite aesthetic challenges to "poly-art" music, especially in those instances where our expectations of "serious" music (especially something in the tradition of J.S. Bach's WTC) come up against overt simplicity, vagueness, or even awkwardness. At times I am reminded of the improvisational antics (read: sloppiness) of 24 Preludes by Zhelobinsky or the (sometimes forced) folksiness of 24 Preludes by Kabalevsky. But this is not an attempt at socialist realism from the 1930s, nor is it a patriotic overture to Russianness during WWII. It seems far removed from those sorts of cultural-stylistic arguments. I feel myself relaxing even as I write that last sentence. It's all going to be ok.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by  Vasco Morelli (buy it here).  It's all about space.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by Vasco Morelli (buy it here). It's all about space.

Here's a few more specific observations.

Catchy: I've had some serious ear-worms with this music. Especially engaging, Fugue 6 in D minor and Fugue 20 in A minor get the toes tapping with snappy rhythms. I also tend to hum the opening melody of Prelude 1 in C Major, a gorgeous but slightly manic hymn.

Contrapuntal: Fugue 1 in C Major can't leave it alone with constant 2-voice stretto, but pulls out all the stops with simultaneous 4-voice stretto with two voices in inverted augmentation and one in augmentation, and a final 4-voice stretto with one voice in augmentation. It's saturated with theme! As if that weren't enough, the theme also makes use of a 32nd-note turn that recalls Bach's WTC1 C Major fugue. Also the 5-voice fugues are crazy-sauce (to use a technical term)!

Neo-Something: Prelude 11 in F Major could be called a Neo-Baroque romp that reminds me of Bach's Italian Concerto III. Prelude 6 in D minor is a genuine passacaglia in almost functional harmony with four embellishments. Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major is almost completely pentatonic with definite appeals to "exotic" gestures (see below). Prelude 18 in A-flat minor (so many flats!) has no measure lines and functions like some free-floating Renaissance recitative. Prelude 19 in A Major could have come right out of Bach's Inventions and many other pieces make use of Baroque-flavored, melodic inversion. The most intense moment of Prelude 7 in E-flat Major upsets an otherwise charming aria with activated bass motion with a harsh shift into bursts into a disjunct section redolent of serialism and melodically coming close do dodecaphonic writing.

Time Signatures: Shostakovich's single 5/8 fugue from the Preludes does not prepare you for Slonimsky's rampant and consistent use of interesting time signatures. By the time you're done, 5/4 (5/8) and 7/8 don't feel nearly as foreign when compared to Fugue 15 in G Major's use of 9/8 (2+3+4) or Fugue 23 in B Major's squirrelly alternation between 3/2 and 4/2 or Fugue 21 in B-flat Major constantly switching between major and minor prolation (thank you Hoppin!) in 6/8.

My Favorite: By far the one I enjoy the most in playing is Prelude and Fugue 10 in E minor. They work excellently as a pair and each use melodic themes that are capable of various moods and conjure beautiful thoughts in my imagination. Nice use of augmentation in the fugue, which is nevertheless not forced, and almost happens imperceptibly.

For the history of the prelude-fugue set, Slonimsky's combination of styles fits right into the genre's age-old mandate to present unified diversity. His frequent changes in style, sometimes within a single piece or between a prelude and its fugue, constantly open the imagination (and critical faculties. The added accessibility of his style with an emphasis on rhythm and harmonic color allow listeners of all types to find something to enjoy. Prelude and Fugue 13 in F-sharp Major performed by Anton Tanonov below. Enjoy!