“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Alfred Cortot and "The Poet Speaks"

Alfred Cortot
     My pianist friend reminded me the other day of the great early 20th century French pianist Alfred Cortot. He made many recordings, some more accurate than others, but always with the musical objectives in tact. Don't bother with his editions of Chopin Etudes with endless examples of mindless exercises meant to strengthen the fingers. They are at best a waste of time and potentially harmful. Personally, I doubt he ever used them himself, as he was a prodigy. 
     Still, he was a fine musician and eloquent teacher. Here is his explication of the final piece in Schumann's Kinderszenen, Der Dichter Spricht: Cortot and "The Poet Speaks."

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bach-Philipp and Issues of Pedaling

J. S. Bach

     My far-flung student, the one who prefers not to Skype but rather send videos with written questions, startled me with some unusual pedal issues. He is playing the Isador Philipp transcription of the "Little" G Minor organ fugue of Bach. He complained of cramping in his calf as the result of pedaling in this piece. Well, I've never before heard of leg injuries from playing the piano. Since I
Isador Philipp
didn't have a clear view in the video of his foot, I responded first to his written statements with some basic pedaling techniques in Bach.

      In unadulterated Bach, which this isn't, pedaling is almost non-existent. That is, we pedal in such a way as to avoid blurring textures. So, we can use pedal on a single chord for warmth or accent; we can use pedal to assist in making a legato connection in a melodic leap (rarely necessary). In Philipp's transcription, I would begin with these ideas in mind, particularly regarding clarity of textures—where he allows for that possibility. We can think of this piece as more romantic than Baroque, imagining a large organ resonating in a cathedral.
     Now, for the more pertinent issues of pain in the leg. Remember, playing the piano is easy and doesn't hurt, not even when using the pedals.  The ball of the foot remains on the pedal, rising only to the point where the dampers release. More than that is overkill. With a properly adjusted pedal, the movement of the foot is almost imperceptible. The basic pedal technique is the so-called syncopated pedal in which the pedal acts on a note to sustain it while the hand moves to a different note, at which time the pedal is reactivated. A flutter pedal is used to release some of the accumulated sound, but not all of it. You can experiment with this technique by playing a chord, putting the pedal down, releasing the keys just to near the point of sound and allowing your foot to come up only part way, not all the way to a complete release of sound. 
     Listening to the sound you make is, of course, always a good
approach, particularly apropos of clarity. I think most advanced pianists pedal "by ear." That is, listening for the degree to which sonorities overlap and how much of that is desirable. If there are passages that are particularly confounding, you can take a technical approach to the use of the pedal, deciding when or if it should be applied and on exactly which note it should be depressed. Do this slowly and thoughtfully, gradually working in the pedal technique the way you would other techniques.
     I concluded that his piano has to be some how out of adjustment if he can't depress the pedal easily with the ball of his foot. He should not have to stomp on it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata: Food for Thought

     One of the questions tossed at me during my doctoral orals had to do with the importance of music theory when making interpretive
decisions. In other words, why bother to analyze a score? Isn't this a little bit like having to understand how a car works in order to drive it, as one colleague put it?
     If in performance our objective is to convey meaning or emotion, then one question is, whose meaning or emotion are we offering? Is it our own, the performer's point of view? Or the composer's? Both? If the performer is the interpreter, then what is he/she interpreting? For me, performance begins with the score. There we find the composer's precise intentions, that is, precise as notation and words with all of their limitations allow. The notes and other markings are surface directions; in order to go deeper, we performers have to think.
   This, it seems to me, is why we need to understand how the piece was put together structurally. Where are the sign posts, the guard rails, the inn at the side of the road? In Beethoven's time a diminished seventh was still a scary chord. A deceptive resolution was still a surprise. In other words, we need to learn how to take the scenic route and enjoy its offerings. Stay off the interstate and much more will be revealed. And no, we don't have to be an auto mechanic to drive a car. We just have to know how to tell it where to go.
     So, I propose some questions. What does it mean that, in his Waldstein Sonata Beethoven  repeats the opening statement on B-flat, pianissimo? How incongruous is that? We are prepared for sunshine on a field of poppies and instead we get a small lake. Soon, with all those borrowings from the parallel minor, we get a sliver of doom, perhaps precipitation, on the horizon, only to be saved again by the sun. What do we think about the choice of keys? Is that incongruous B-flat a hint that things are not going to be as expected? What should we—could we—do about the second subject appearing in E Major instead of the usual dominant? E major seems to me even warmer, after  C major and especially after that soggy B-flat.
     Hah! I'll bet you thought I would tell you the answers, as if there were absolute answers. No, this is my way of thinking aloud, my way of getting the engine started. To view one person's analysis of the first movement, visit Waldstein. And do enjoy the view.