Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: 24 Preludes

Twenty-four preludes
Each key, its own universe
Beauty crystallized.

But whose? You may ask.
Is it Bach? Shostakovich?
Chopin? Debussy?

Today it’s Chopin
Preludes to infinity,
Where will they lead you?

Pianist James Rhodes has posted an interesting video at Apple Music.  He urges people to take the time, just a little time each day, to do something they have always wanted to do.  Want to play the piano?  He says there are pieces even a beginner can learn if they put in some time, some effort.  He suggests Chopin’s Prelude in E minor.

Imagine playing it for your friends.  Not a piano person?  Ok, how about guitar? (sweet lesson on playing the prelude here). Friends not into classical music?  I think Jimmy Page has it covered here. Don’t get me started on Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai.

Not a guitarist, not a musician at all?  Then press play and play it for your friends.  You’ve just become an ambassador of classical music.  And think of how much music you’d get to know, if you listened to just a little every day.

So how about those preludes?

Chopin wrote them in the winter of 1838-39 in Majorca.  At the time, Chopin was immersed in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, two volumes each containing 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys.  Chopin’s preludes are brief, lasting from 12 to 90 measures.  Some are immensely challenging to play.  Each seems to convey an emotion, but which one is open to interpretation.  Alfred Cortot and Hans von Bülow (who was married to Liszt’s daughter Cosima, before she left him for Wagner; read his quotes at the bottom of the Wikipedia article for a laugh) wrote brief descriptions for each prelude, but experience them for yourself, and see what each says to you.

Now I think I have some practicing to do.

Here are some resources if you’d like to know more about Chopin’s preludes.

First, of course, the sheet music, if you’d like to try that Prelude in E minor or follow as you listen (scroll down for sheet music) http://imslp.org/wiki/Preludes,_Op.28_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric)

Inevitably, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preludes_(Chopin)

Radio Chopin, where you can hear each prelude individually http://www.radiochopin.org/the-preludes

[Analysis] Discussion of the individual preludes:  brief (http://www.chopinmusic.net/works/preludes/), with moderate detail (http://culture.pl/en/article/breaking-down-chopins-24-preludes) and [in depth] more (http://www.ourchopin.com/analysis/prelude.html)

A thesis paper on the history of the prelude and Chopin’s preludes in particular at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1947&context=theses

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The French Connections

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While I was researching Maurice Ravel for last week’s Haiku Wednesday, I kept seeing connections between various French composers, more so than I had seen with other composers (or maybe I haven’t looked hard enough yet).  So I started reading about them to learn more, and found the connections fascinating.

Of course we know now about Ravel (1875-1937).  Ravel studied with Émile Decombes, a student of Chopin’s, as did Alfred Cortot, whom I mentioned in a previous post.  Later Ravel studied with Gabriel Fauré.  Ravel’s father introduced him to Erik Satie (1866-1925).  Satie at some point turned his back on Ravel, and Satie’s student Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) said (after Satie had also turned against Poulenc) “I admire him as ever, but breathe a sigh of relief at finally not having to listen to his eternal ramblings on the subject of Ravel.”1

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) studied organ under the tutelage of Camille Saint-Saëns, and the two remained close friends.  In 1871 he took the post of choirmaster at a church where the organist was Charles-Marie Widor.  The two frequently improvised organ duets.  Fauré was a charter member of the Société National de Musique founded by Saint-Saëns.  Also members were Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), Jules Massenet (1842-1912), and César Franck (1822-1890). 2  One of Franck’s students at the Paris Conservatory was Claude Debussy (1862-1918)3

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) studied organ at the Paris Conservatory (organ was emphasized over piano because of the greater career opportunities for organists).  As an organist he came to the attention of Hector Berlioz.   After the collapse of his marriage, Saint-Saëns became attached to Gabriel Fauré’s family.4

Charles-Marie Widor received his first organist post with the support of Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod.  When César Franck died, Widor took his post as professor at the Paris Conservatory.  Widor was a staunch proponent of Bach’s organ music and one of his students was Albert Schweitzer.  Widor founded the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau and served as its director until 1934, at which time Maurice Ravel succeeded him.5

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was introduced to Bach’s music by Fanny Mendelssohn.  One of Gounod’s students was Georges Bizet.  When Gounod died, the music for the service was conducted by Fauré with Saint-Saëns at the organ.6

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) became friends with Franz Liszt, when both attended a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with an overture composed by Berlioz.  Liszt was a witness at Berlioz’s marriage to Harriet Smithson.7  Liszt was also in attendance at a mass where organ improvisations were performed by César Franck.  Liszt highly praised Franck’s work and began including Franck’s work in concerts in Germany.8  Liszt is said to have called his friend Camille Saint-Saëns “the greatest organist in the world.”  Saint-Saëns dedicated his third symphony to Liszt.9

Tune in tomorrow for more on the music behind these French connections.

Resources

  1. Kelly, Barbara L, Music and Ultra-modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913-1939. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013, p 57, Wikipedia entry on Maurice Ravel.
  2. Wikipedia article on Gabriel Fauré.
  3. Wikipedia article on Claude Debussy.
  4. Wikipedia article on Camille Saint-Saëns.
  5. Wikipedia article on Charles-Marie Widor.
  6. Wikipedia article on Charles Gounod.
  7. Wikipedia article on Hector Berlioz.
  8. Vallas, Leon, Cesar Franck, Trans. Hubert J. Foss. New York: Oxford Universty Press, 1951, p 127. Trans. of La veritable histoire de Cesar Franck, 1949, via Wikipedia article on Cesar Franck.
  9. Wikipedia article on Franz Liszt.


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Things heard on the way to listening to something else, and how do you play them?

I was debating whether to buy a recording of pianist Alfred Cortot playing Chopin, or another collection of his recordings, when I came upon pianist Brigitte Engerer by accident.  I started listening to her recording of the Chopin Nocturnes.

Wow.

I can’t quite put my finger on why they sounded so good to me.  The only way I can think to describe it is, she made it sound effortless.  There was a lightness in her playing that was just different somehow.

It was quite a wonderful time.  Now I want to listen to some of the other great pianists playing the same thing to hear how they play those same notes, and yet sound different (and figure out how to describe these differences).  This is why I have several recordings of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Winterreise.

Each musician, while staying true to the score, brings something of themselves to the performance.   Each must determine from the instructions indicated by the composer how the piece “should” be played.  But the notations leave room for interpretation.

As a former literature major, this is not unknown territory.  Why did Robert Frost repeat the line “And miles to go before I sleep”?  Let’s not go there just now.

So you try to get out of the way of Bach or Schubert or Beethoven, and let the music speak.  Again, not unfamiliar territory.  I am a translator, and the ideal (my ideal anyway) is to be invisible.  The work should sound natural in the target language, as if it were written in that language in the first place, with all the author’s original nuances and color.

But my word choices, no differently than a particular musician’s turn of phrase, are unique to me, and perhaps, if one observes closely enough, or in enough volume, I may be identifiable.  Can’t help it, it’s just the way I think.  It’s the way everyone thinks.

What I’m trying to say is, as self-effacing as a musician (or translator) tries to be, some of their personality, or style, is going to leak through.  That’s why you can know it’s Glenn Gould, or Barenboim, or Stokowski (or, for that matter, AC/DC) from a few measures sometimes.

Is that good?  I suppose, as long as it’s not all about Musician X at the expense of Composer Y.  It’s certainly human.  That’s why MIDI renditions of scores created by computers sound a little bland.  They are exact, but…somehow expressionless.  Even though Cortot was not without his mistakes, he is lauded for his interpretations.  There isn’t just Chopin, and can never be, now that he is gone.  And he almost certainly played a given piece differently depending on mood and other factors.  Now, there is Chopin+Performer.  As humans, we want to hear what the performer brings to the piece.

Engerer+Chopin sounds different than Cortot+Chopin, just as (Pears+Britten)Schubert sounds different than (Padmore+Lewis)Schubert.  And each is beautiful in its own way.

Vive la différence!

Hear Brigitte Engerer play Chopin

See Alfred Cortot play Chopin