Tag Archives: piano

BBC Radio 3 to Premiere ‘Unknown’ Brahms

In an age when one might think we have discovered most of the treasures of the musical world – that there is nothing new to find – it is exciting to learn that musicologists still come across hidden delights. Conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood made an exciting discovery while looking through a music collection in the US – a short piano piece by the young Brahms. Written in 1853 when Brahms was 20, ‘Albumblatt’ shows the early workings of this great composer (and makes use of a theme found twelve years later in his Horn Trio, Op. 40). It will receive its premiere broadcast – the first recording made by the pianist Andras Schiff – on Saturday 21st January 2012 at 12.15 pm during Music Matters on BBC Radio 3. A video showing behind the scenes of the recording will be available on the BBC Radio 3 website after the broadcast.

“As the home of classical music, BBC Radio 3 is honoured to be the first to broadcast this rare work. I know that our millions of listeners will enjoy this exclusive premiere.”

Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3

What was Innovative about Debussy’s Approach to Pianism?

~ I’m digging up previous things I’ve written: here is something from 2003 ~

‘Debussy, like Chopin and Beethoven before him, created his own piano’[1], but before he could develop his own brand of pianism, however highly influenced, he was to master the styles of his predecessors. These predecessors were far reaching, ranging from Couperin to Fauré and including the strong influence of Chopin. Chopin’s influence can be witnessed in Debussy’s choice of character piece in his early output including a Mazurka (c. 1890), Tarantelle styrienne (1890), Ballade (originally Ballade slave, 1890) and Nocturne (1892).

We see a development of Chopinesque features in Suite bergamasque (1890). Debussy’s reliance on the past is further exemplified with the Baroque forms in the Menuet and Passpied in this work, though translated into a late-Romantic, French aesthetic. Clair de lune is the first work to have a descriptive title, and certainly earned Debussy, along with other works, the label of ‘impressionist’. Perhaps the Debussy of the 20th century can be seen to appear from the Images (published as Images oubliées 1977, though written 1894). The first use of the term and its interpretation is as thought-provoking as the later Messiaen’s Regards.

 Example 1 Opening of Tarantelle styrienne.

 His early music is certainly concerned with parallelism, perhaps because of his penchant for improvising at the piano such harmonies, especially 9ths. Parallelism certainly finds its roots in pianism, because of the structure of the keyboard and the movement of the hands in such chords. The equal tempering of the instrument allows such harmonic possibilities, including whole-tone scales. Debussy’s interest in the past certainly extended beyond Couperin and would have included the Notre Dame school of Léonin and Pérotin, whose organum would also influence his writing.  The Lent from Images (1894) opens with a monodic line, and the parallelism of the Notre Dame school can be witnessed in the Sarabande from Pour le piano (1894 – 1901). Parallelism is considered a Debussyian feature, and exemplifies his innovation in harmony through its treatment as a sound-object rather than part of a progression; such an innovation was core to Debussy’s work as a composer.

Example 2 ‘Lent’ from Images (1894)

Roy Howat suggests ‘had Debussy written no piano music after 1892, he would be regarded by pianists as a different composer, for his early piano music, far from presaging later works, has a character of its own, reflecting an earlier era.’[2] The decisive factor in marking the conclusion of Debussy’s early period of composition though, was his visit to the Paris Exhibition of 1889.  ‘It is significant that for the new departure [in pianism] signalled by Estampes (1903), Debussy should have chosen as the opening piece a picturesque impression of the Javanese gamelan.’[3] An examination of Debussy’s music prior to this ‘departure’ displays a pianism that pays much homage to his predecessors (primarily Chopin), but the impact of the Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Exhibition left a lasting mark, which ultimately propelled Debussy’s pianism into new domains. It should also be noted that ‘it was indeed [a] growing hostility to prevailing German influences in French music which fostered Debussy’s growing enthusiasm for developments outside the mainstreams of Western European traditions.’[4]The inherent contrapuntal textures, for example, of a gamelan orchestra are easily transferred into a piano texture. The atmospheric resonance however, was something that Debussy experimented with, and certainly became fundamental in many works to follow.

Example 3 ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes (1903)

The very opening displays a ‘layering’ of elements; generally speaking, the lower the sound, the longer the duration (Debussy specifically marks which hand plays what in the first bar). This layering takes place of two staves but we eventually see the introduction of three staves, which Roy Howat writes is not for the convenience of the performer, but for the convenience of Debussy himself in constructing such contrapuntal textures. The textures are exceptionally pianistic, and well suited to the favoured piano of the composer; the German Blüthner, which possessed a deeper touch and a difference in quality between registers. Debussy’s favoured piano certainly clashed with Ravel’s personal choice of an Erard; this had a shallower touch suited to the jeu perlé style of playing (of rapid passage work) promoted by performers/teachers such as Margeurite Long.

The three-part texture predominates throughout Debussy’s output, and one can assume this was due to his choice of piano, where the registers would have had increased definition compared to the uniformity of more recent instruments. This layering of textures is not innovative however and has appeared in many guises; Beethoven sonatas, and the Nocturnes and Mazurkas of Chopin. Whether or not such layering was encouraged by their choice of piano is a matter of conjecture. This ‘multiplicity of simultaneous lines’[5] though is an important characteristic of Debussy’s piano music. It is certainly an important issue of balance pianistically, yet Debussy aids this by careful consideration of registers.

Example 4 Feuilles Mortes from Preludes Book II, opening: Showing the three part texture; the tie in the third bar showing Debussy’s notation for allowing a note to continue to sound with the pedal.

Both pedals are used in ‘Pagodes’, but an interesting point arises with regards to the lack of pedal markings (which is trend throughout Debussy’s piano oeuvre). ‘Pagodes’ does include some markings, which are to highlight extensive use of the sustaining pedal such as at b. 27 – 31. This passage is surprising in sonority, and shows the extent of Debussy’s assimilation of his gamelan experience. It is marked pianissimo, but over the period where the pedals are depressed a ‘cloud’ of sound is forming. Though an innovative approach to pedalling, it is not unparalled (and Philip suggests that Ricardo Viňes was a definitive influence)[6]; Ravel used the pedal similarly on the final page of Jeux d’eau (1901). Therefore the piano is, as Debussy discovered, the only instrument capable of reproducing the resonance of the gamelan. Such use of the pedal was its ‘emancipation’ (and innovation) from a mere cantabile aid, but to an important timbral element in its own right.  Debussy is exploring ‘the resonance created after the impact of the hammer, as the sounds are dying away’[7], and attempting to produce sounds as if the piano was sans marteaux.

Example 5 ‘Pagodes’

The sonorities created by a more liberal pedalling encouraged an investigation of overtones on Debussy’s part. Such experiments (which are extensions of those begun by Chopin, Liszt and Ravel) yielded results found in various pieces spanning his output (though it should be mentioned that his music was not always published in the order of completion, so chronology can sometimes be a problem).  The harmonic series influences the structure of harmonies in several cases, where the upper part forms a link in the series formed by the harmony below. A striking instance of this happens in Canope, which ‘ends on a note that is not actually played.’(Example 6)[8]

Example 6 Canope, b. 30 – 33

‘Pagodes’ is an allusion to a Westernised gamelan, one which is not restricted to the modes and scales of Eastern music, but one that has twelve pitches as its foundation. But the inherent pentatonicism of the music fits the topography of keyboard well, whereby the pentatonic scale manifests its self in the form of the black keys. It is also an intrinsically pianistic trait, and a comfortable one at that, along with ‘playing in the cracks’ with the seconds accompanying the melody (see example 3). Structuring of such dyads is something unique to pianism (often be played with one finger, usually the thumb) but its use here is not unprecedented. Ravel had used both devices in Jeux d’eau (1901) (example 7), which had its own ancestry in Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este (1877).

Example 7 b. 78, Jeux d’eau (1901), Ravel.

Water was also a preoccupation of Debussy’s, and it heralded numerous pianistic techniques, passed down from Liszt, and also explored by Ravel, to conjure up florid and perpetual motion. Such techniques were fully established by Ravel’s Jeux d’eau; arpeggios and rapid passagework, the latter being a fundamental aspect of the quintessentially French jeu perlé style of playing. We can witness this type of writing in ‘Pagodes’, though the subject matter is not water. The final piece from Estampes uses a different style of playing to create the illusion of rain, ‘Jardins sous la pluie’. Here we have, for the most part, a quasi-toccata texture, displaying Debussy’s penchant for Couperin and Rameau. It is also a display of the virtuosic element to his musical personality.

Example 8 Jardins sous la pluie, from Estampes (opening)

Virtuosity is an often overlooked element in Debussy’s output, and several works display this to Lisztian proportions. Such a characteristic adds to the composer’s range of expression, yet the virtuosically inclined works do not show the intense Romantic expression of Liszt[9]. His influence is apparent through the appearance of ‘actual mechanics of Lisztian pianism appear[ing] again and again …[showing] his deep knowledge of the repertoire.’[10] This music is idiomatically composed for the piano, yet Debussy himself was not a pianist of virtuoso abilities.

‘The impressionist application of virtuoso figurations to create atmospheric effects was adopted by Debussy in his piano music from Estampes (1903)’[11] The first piece from Images (Ist series, 1904 – 5), ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ exemplifies this virtuosity; the legato-phrased chords, the wide leaps (b. 9 for example, shown in example 9), the jeu perlé passages and the melody placed in the tenor register. Voicing is certainly an issue here for the pianist. What is innovative here is the particular chords Debussy has selected; they fall under the hand gracefully, and are comfortable due to the certain combinations of black and white keys. Like much of Ravel’s music, this would not have the same effect if transposed to a different key. It makes an important point, that certain combinations of notes appear to have been chosen for kinaesthetic reasons.

Example 9 Reflets dans l’eau, Images (opening)

The juxtaposition of black and white keys is exceptionally idiomatic pianism. A fine and influential example is the cadenza of Jeux d’eau (see example 10), and a humorous example can be found in the opening of Debussy’s first etudes (1915), where the A-flat intrudes on the white note ‘Czerny’ exercise (example 11). Such juxtaposition can also account for much of the bitonality of the later piano works, notably Blanc et noir (1915) for two pianos.

Example 10 Jeux d’eau

Example 11 First Etudes (1915)

Though many works exist in his oeuvres that are virtuosic, several are virtuosic for virtuosities sake. These include ‘Feux d’artifice’ (from Preludes II 1911) and ‘Poissons d’or’ (from Images II 1907), certainly Roberts tells us that ‘pianism, of the transcendental kind, was one of the many inspirations for ‘Poisson d’or’’[12]. Only one work verges on the Lisztian in terms of its virtuosity, and that is the prelude (from book II) ‘Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest’ (1911). Perhaps the innovations are not in the pianism in these pieces, but in the compositional process. Nevertheless, the pianism makes use of octaves, tremolandi and the popular jeu perlé.

Example 12 ‘Poissons d’or’ (from Images  II)

[Debussy] successfully attempts a distinctively new look at a well-established musical genre… in his Etudes (1915)[13]. The work encapsulates Debussy’s innovations in pianism, while also serving as preparation for the performer to study Debussy’s music. Though not as virtuosic as the previously identified virtuosic works, they remain difficult and as a result are rarely performed. Compositionally, they show a crystallised version of Debussy’s mosaic approach to form and what Rebecca Leydon has shown as ‘cinematic techniques’[14]. The set was dedicated to Chopin, and one can see Debussy’s continuation of such genres evident in the Préludes also. The twelve etudes include ‘for five fingers’, followed by studies for thirds, fourths, sixths and octaves. There is an etude for ‘eight fingers’, ‘chromatic notes’, ‘contrasting sonorities’, and finally ‘chords’. Certainly Debussy was following the footsteps of the great pedagogue Czerny, leaving a legacy of innovative pianistic studies that would prepare pianists for his own music and much of what was to come.

As a pianist-composer, Debussy certainly continued the approach of his predecessors; to advance pianism through their music, and to leave some form of etudes to aid the performer to overcome these advances. Debussy’s own innovations are often echoes of Ravels, and Jeux d’eau is a work whose influence was to ripple through the piano music of composers of years to come. Ricardo Viňes certainly aided the transferral of pianistic ideas between the two composers, and it has been often mistakenly attributed that Debussy was the instigator of many innovations. Nevertheless, Debussy’s legacy is one of sonority, opening up numerous possibilities making the piano sound as if it was sans marteaux. Roberts makes a similar point, ‘that one of the principal technical problems for a performer of Debussy’s piano music is the production of sound, the control of all those elements of pianism for which we use such words as texture, colour, sonority, and tone.’[15] Robert Philip reminds us though, that ‘it now seems abundantly clear that the exciting new developments in piano music in the early years of the twentieth century were firmly rooted in nineteenth century precedent.’[16] Debussy’s importance in the pianism innovation cannot be ignored, continuing where ‘Chopin left off’[17].


 Dent, Edward J, The Pianoforte and its Influence on Modern Music (The Musical Quarterly, Vol II, 1916, pp. 271 – 294)

Gartner, Kenneth R, The Expansion of Pianism since 1945 (PhD dissertation, New York University 1979)

Leydon, Rebecca, Debussy’s Late Style and the Devices of the Early Silent Cinema, from

Orledge, Robert, Debussy’s Piano Music (The Musical Times, Jan 1981 pp. 21 – 27)

Pasler, Jann, Timbre, Voice-leading, and the Musical Arabesque in Debussy’s Piano Music, from Debussy in Performance.

Roberts, Paul, Images (USA, Amadeus Press 1996)

Ed. Rowland, David, The Cambridge Companion to the Piano (Cambridge, CUP 1998)

Samson, Jim, Music in Transition (London, J. M. Dent & Sons 1993)

Schmitz, E. R., The Piano Works of Claude Debussy (Dover, New York 1966).

Smith, Richard Langham-, Debussy Studies (CUP, 1997)

Whittall, Arnold, Tonality and the Whole-Tone Scale in the music of Debussy,  (Music Review 36 (1975): 261 – 71)

Whittall, Arnold, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century (New York, OUP 1999)


[1] Gartner, K (1979)

[2] Howat, R (Series 1, Volume 1)

[3] Roberts, P (1996) pp. 161

[4] Samson, J. pp. 34

[5] Passler, Jann

[6] Philip, R. Cambridge Companion, pp. 193

[7] Roberts, P (1996),  pp. 157

[8] Roberts, P (1996) pp.163

[9] Roberts, P (1996) pp. 178

[10] Ibid. pp. 181

[11] Philip, R in Cambridge Companion, pp. 192

[12] Roberts, Paul (1996) pp. 191

[13] Whittall, A. (1999)pp. 18

[14] Leydon, R. (article)

[15] Roberts, P (1996) pp. 285

[16] Philip, R in Cambridge Companion pp. 192

[17] Grove article, ‘Piano Playing’

Composing Across the Spectrum

-Below is the text of the article that appears in the current issue of EPTA’s Piano Professional-

Nothing can be more satisfying in the early stages of a new composition with a pupil than exploring scores. For me, all composition should start with research; listening to similarly scored pieces, exploring a particular composer in depth and perhaps even researching a particular compositional technique as adopted by a group of composers. Thalia Myers’ wonderful Spectrum series unendingly surprises me with such a wealth of compositional intrigue; her carefully selected volumes offer such breadth of compositional approach that regardless of the composition a pupil is working on (or even writing myself) one can perceive with immediacy a mass of inspiration. If you are a teacher who is regularly asked by pupils to help with the dreaded GCSE and A level composition coursework, or to offer much needed inspiration to those who find composing a challenging task, you will find a great deal on offer in all of the piano volumes in Spectrum series to spark off even the most struggling young composer.

All the pieces in the series offer a glimpse of a composer’s approach encapsulated in microcosm. Each piece offers a potential starting point, or an approach that could be adopted by a pupil in much need of inspiration. The first Spectrum volume for example has a wonderfully evocative short piece by Philip Cashian, ‘Landscape’. This piece can be used to demonstrate a work that is structured by timbre and density, through a colourful harmonic approach. It would be advantageous to play this to a pupil and let them perceive the structure of the work – modelling how a piece need not be structured through the repetition of melodic ideas but through the careful gradation of harmonic and textural density. There is a real sense that the harmonies were discovered by Cashian through experimentation on the piano, and in turn pupils can be encouraged to find interesting combinations of notes on the piano free of the restrictions of triads. Fitkin’s ‘Sazz’ further shows how through extension of triads and the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated triads one can create a beautifully expressive miniature.

The second volume of miniatures is wonderful for demonstrating some extended techniques on the piano. ‘Nyanyushka’s Song’ by Jeremy Dale Roberts exploits the delicacy of harmonics – experimenting with a pupil on how to create these and how they might be used in a piece would follow naturally. Philip Cashian’s ‘Slow Moon’ demonstrates how the pedal can be emancipated to create a cloud of sound, and like his piece in the first volume of Spectrum, it shows a sensitive approach to register and the careful pacing of increased range between the highest and lowest notes. Tavener’s ‘Zodiacs’ is a striking piece – perhaps less so on paper but when demonstrated to a pupil they cannot help but be struck by the exciting effect produced by leaving the sustaining pedal down for such a long time. ‘Foglie d’Autunno’ by Edward McGuire will inspire pupils to consider less regular approaches to metre – and anything to free them from the burden of common time is welcome. Such pieces can seem daunting to analyse but it can be an enjoyable experience spotting how a composer has structured such a short work and by modelling such structures they can appropriated by the pupil as necessary to help them structure their own pieces.
Even more breadth of compositional approach is evident in the third volume of the series and I would suggest showing pupils ‘Wrist Rock’ by Kevin Volans – not only as an example of effective toccata style writing but also how even the most economical of ideas can be developed to create a meaningful miniature. Discussing with a pupil how the opening creates the rest of the piece would be highly useful for helping them consider how they might shape and structure a work based on an opening idea. Naji Hakim’s ‘Dumia’ demonstrates a wide range of textures and will encourage pupils not to neglect the possibilities the piano offers; not only does it highlight the range of sonorities afforded by exploiting the lower and higher registers but it shows idiomatic writing. Much inspiration will be gained from the opening and the use of hand-crossing. Paul Ruder’s ‘Shooting Stars’ offers an effective solution to the use of repeated patterns with subtle variation that will prevent a listener losing interest if a pattern is repeated too much without variation. Encouraging pupils to vary anything repeated is highly advantageous if they are making use of repeated patterns; looking at how the patterns in Ruder’s piece move in and out of phase would be worth drawing attention to when discussing with a pupil. ‘Lavender Field’ will be of interest to many pupils with its immediately attractive sound world and it is useful to draw pupils’ attention to the cross-rhythms and unexpected harmonic shifts. Anything to help pupils escape the primary triads in their writing should be encouraged, and this miniature will inspire that.

Spectrum 4 is an impressive collection of sixty-six miniatures and it features such a vast array of differing approaches that it could be considered the most useful as many of the pieces are a page long and allow even the beginning composer to perceive the compositional intent of a particular piece. For example ‘Gentle Darkness’ (Ananda Sukarlan) shows how the interval of a perfect fifth can be used exclusively to good effect, or the freedom afforded by Gabriel Jackson’s ‘September Chorale’. The latter piece shows a good method of demonstrating harmonies for a work, through the movement of one note at a time to create a new chord (see the example below). Michael Zev Gordon’s ‘Crystal Clear’ will inspire a sensitive approach to chordal writing and facilitate a freer approach from the pupil. This fourth volume includes works that require the use of pre-recorded material and it might be worth exploring these to help a pupil realise there is no right and wrong in composition but the realm of possibility is far broader than they might believe.

All the pupils I have used the Spectrum series enjoy seeing the work of living composers. I think it is essential for teachers to expose pupils to living works – if we are to inspire the works of tomorrow we need to play them the works of today. There is indeed a place for the wealth of repertoire from the past and our pupils will gain plenty of inspiration from listening to Brahms as they will Bach but Spectrum offers inspiration that is much more within the grasp of the younger composer. The pieces in all volumes are not too long – making a pupil believe that they too can write a piece of similar length – and the clarity with which one can detect the approach adopted by each composer allows a pupil to feel they understand ‘modern’ music and it is not to feared as perhaps some teachers might suggest. I welcome further additions to the series and implore those teachers who do not have them next to their piano to go and get them – you will find them a wonderful tool in helping your pupils organise the sounds in their imaginations and get them on paper.

Day Three in the “Loony Bin”

Kenneth mentioned at the start of the week that Craighouse – where the piano course is held – was originally a mental health institution and in fact the very same institution that housed Wilfred Owen and Sassoon. It also seems a rather fitting place to be undertaking an intensive piano course where my sanity and concentration are also being tested!

Quick walk during a break

Day three started off with the ‘play-throughs’ and again some major works presented and some detailed discussions ensued. Bach’s Goldberg Variations necessitated debate on the realisation of ornamentation and it reminded me why I also stay away from such repertoire. Nigel Kennedy’s recent remarks on the issue of authenticity - http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/aug/13/nigel-kennedy-violinists-bach - came to mind. I find myself drawn to repertoire of the more recent past because the instructions (score) are detailed enough for me to feel I can faithfully reproduce the intentions of the composer. Of course there is intrigue in exploring earlier repertoire where the score lacks the detail and the performer has the opportunity to delve deeper into performance practice and conventions of the time. Berg’s Op. 1 Sonata was played and I felt encouraged by it that one day I might take a closer look at the score myself. Interesting piano writing and I could see that even with a less stable tonal vocabulary – though I felt there was something of jazz in this work in it’s harmonic approach – there were recognisable moments of melodic development and a motivic approach in the writing.

Day two gave me the realisation that my practice needed greater focus and with regards to the piano it needed to involve training of the fingers to play the repertoire. My work today focused on getting the fingering and notes for the second movement of the Prokofiev sonata into my fingers. Using the metronome I worked at the quaver and reached quaver = 135. After my individual session with Kenneth that looked at how to finger/play the left hand material in the Fauré Nocturne I came back to the Prokofiev and tiredness and worn out hands resulted in less successful practice. Even after semi-supine and a short walk, four hours practice today was my limit so I departed. I am rather annoyed that practice ended on a less than good note as I will be presenting my work-in-progress of the second movement in class tomorrow. Before my lesson with Kenneth I felt confident I knew it but now I feel tenuous about how successful my play through will go. It presents some interesting challenges – with staccato quavers against sustained notes – and at speed it will either sound accomplished or could collapse like a poorly constructed tent. I’ll return to it tomorrow following the class and hope some encouragement from the class will help tackle it with renewed vigour.

Does harmony fuel the emotional energy of a song?

As I sit on the 188 reading the recently penned lyrics for “Notice Me” I immediately heard a melody; perhaps this is due to the quality of the lyric rather than the speed at which my creative process works. Nevertheless I started to think how much the harmonic content of a song increases the power of the words – but at the expense of the melodic line?

I am hearing songs in my head where the most compelling moments, for me, were where the resolution of “dissonance” was suspended. I think it is this pull towards a resolution that begs us to listen. Only within a framework of consonance can such a pull be vivid enough to have an emotional effect, otherwise too much emancipation of dissonance will lead to an emotionally numb experience. Or is this rather a simplistic view? Perhaps timbre plays an equally vital role in capturing emotional intent, and the “grain of a voice” (Barthes) is even more vital than the melodic line or harmonic vocabulary. Perhaps the harmonic intentions and melodic direction come more from timbral concerns rather than pitch concerns?

There is a Judith Weir song (the title of which escapes me) where the voice seems to float from the piano part – it gradually escapes the piano part and both gradually take on independence. The piano writing is not overtly complex but I find the clarity of timbre and line – the piano has single notes at the opening – immediately creates a pull between the voice and piano. This pull – an increasing desire for their independence to come to a resolutary conclusion – is what allures. The narrative impulse of such writing makes it inviting for listeners – to keep listening to the journey the individual parts endure and how the “play of comparison” between the two parts and earlier material of the song fuel continued desire to listen.

I wonder if I dare write fewer notes to exploit the persuasiveness of timbre. What is frightening is not getting the first note. It’s the second…