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!

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!

Boris on Butterfly Beach

The past week and a half has been quite eventful. Jess and I pulled the trigger and came down from Roseville to our new duplex in Santa Barbara. We made due for the first few days with two chairs and a mattress on the floor - just until my bargain huntress of a wife found a free dresser, free bed frame and box spring, free couch, and $10 bookshelf. Things are starting to look like a house. Santa Barbara is starting to look like a home as well, with familiar beaches and streets, new discoveries and surprises, and the constant bumping into old friends in the most providential places.

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch  by Chris Potter. 

Butterfly Beach Sunset Arch by Chris Potter. 

Amidst looking for summer employment and networking, I'm trying to keep loose by brushing up on my German ("shadowing" and "dictation" with a podcast), rereading some history books in preparation for the UCSB placement tests (history, theory, and musicianship), and going on very long walks with Jess and Numi on various beaches and through various parks (Numi is a complete nutter for the waves!). Check out Jess's blog for upcoming pictures that attempt to capture something of the outrageous beauty that overflows everywhere in this place. I'm going to write a bit on Boris Goltz and his Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 2 (1934-35), getting some mileage out of my thesis and keeping up those writing and analyzing skills for the two months before school starts.

Boris Grigorevich Goltz (1913–1942) was born in the city of Tashkent. I wish there was more information on his family - their ancestry, how long they had lived there, why, what they did during the 1916 Basmachi Revolt, or where their sympathies lay in the violent anti-Bolshevik riots that lasted into late 1920s. All we know (thanks to a short monograph by Rafael Frid) is that thirteen-year old Boris moved to Leningrad in 1926. He worked, like Shostakovich several years earlier, as a silent movie accompanist, and took piano lessons, again like Shostakovich, from Leonid Nikolayev. It wasn't until the Leningrad harmony professor Venedict Pushkov saw the young pianists sketches for twenty-four preludes that Goltz gained the confidence to pursue composition. He graduated from the Conservatory in piano in 1938 and composition in 1940. Within that time he had composed or sketched out quite a wealth of pieces (almost all completely lost), got married to a piano colleague, and had every mark of excelling as a composer.

In 1941 Russia entered into WWII. Goltz, apparently not senior enough to be shipped off to one of those artistic refuge communities in Siberia, joined the Baltic Fleet Political Administration, a group of composers stationed in Leningrad, charged with the task of writing patriotic songs and plays for performing groups and military choirs. His songs in particular enjoyed wide success, one-hit-wonders like “The Song of Anger,” “The Song of Vengeance,” and “Shining Star in the Heavens.” Despite the idealized texts, Goltz and his colleagues worked in debilitating hunger and cold, crammed into a small room and composing without the aid of a piano. Seven months into the Siege of Leningrad, Goltz died of malnutrition.

It's a little ironic to write about the tragic, 1942, shivering-in-the-Leningrad-winter death of a Soviet composer with the sunny Pacific Ocean breezes wafting through my 2012 window. I can only hope that as I write about this composer and his music that I not be disingenuous and that I attempt to come from as good a place as I can - that of breathing a small measure of life into the memory of a nearly forgotten, but ultimately noteworthy individual.