“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.”

Friday, January 21, 2022

Chopin Nocturne in D-flat, Op, 27, No. 2: Pesky Melisma

When I was a mere lad, my teacher assigned Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 27, No. 2. It was a favorite of mine and I was eager to study it. All went well until that pesky melisma near the end. You know the one I mean—the one that tends to jam in speed when the hand gets out of synch. Somehow,  the passage worked for me most of the time, but I was never happy with it until years later when I understood better what was at stake. I was reminded of this recently when a student appeared with his hand out of whack from having struggled with it. It was my job to help him smooth it back into shape. 
    Notice that the music changes direction with every note. This is a job for forearm rotation, our fastest movement and one that our bodies are designed to do easily and forever—well, a very long time. The hand will lock and the notes will jam if each note doesn't get its full attention, if the weight isn't transferred back and forth. So, if this passage bothers you, practice slowly feeling balanced on each note before going on to the next. Notice also where the hand is in relation to the black keys; move in just before playing the thumb on a black key and back out again for successive white keys. I've added the fingering I use, all though the editor's fingering will work, fussy though it is. Click on the example to enlarge:

Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 27, No. 2
Pesky Melisma

        Another tool I use is called grouping. If the above fingering and in/out shaping isn't enough to make the passage feel easy, consider organizing groups of four notes beginning with the C-flat. If the first note of the group is C-flat, group from the second note, the first one a G. So, G, A-flat, G, C-flat and land back silently on the next starting note, G-flat. Always land on the first note of the next group.



Sunday, January 9, 2022

Broadening the Musical Experience: Piano Four-hand Transcriptions


Bette Davis

 Every now and then—okay often—I cite a reference with my students that dates me. I've learned, for instance, that film stars from the golden age of Hollywood are no longer in the firmament. Bette Davis (mid-twentieth century movie star) once said "If everyone likes you, you’re not doing it right.” I thought this apropos for students enduring the rigors of competitions. The most celebrated musicians that I grew up revering are at most an echo in some distant galaxy. Arthur Rubinstein was once the go-to pianist for all things Chopin. His training began, after all, in the late nineteenth century.
Arthur Rubinstein

    Sometimes I allude to other instrumental works or opera in order to make a point for students. When these references elicit blank stares, I begin to think there's something missing in the musical education. Hence my present occupation, which, admittedly arose out of an abundance of at-home time in recent months. I have been transcribing significant and engaging works, orchestral and piano, for piano four hands. The hope is that the joy that comes from sharing music with a partner will instill a broader appreciation of othegenres and of larger piano works that may lie a bit beyond technically, in the virtuoso realm. These pieces are remarkably easier to play as duets, and in the process of playing them, one begins to unlock some of their mysteries. The Brahms "Handel Variations" is in the works. But available now is the "Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky" by Anton Arensky. 


    This set of variations is the celebrated string-orchestra composition by one of Russia's most romantic composers, which I've transcribed for piano four hands. Here you will find idiomatic piano figures that are both easy and somewhat challenging. The variations began life as the slow movement of Arensky's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35, for the unusual scoring of violin, viola, and 2 cellos. Written in 1894, the year after the death of Tchaikovsky, it is a tribute to that composer. The theme is from the song "Legend," the fifth of Tchaikovsky's sixteen Children's Songs, Op. 54. Tchaikovsky's song was inspired by a poem  called "Roses and Thorns" by the American poet Richard Henry Stoddard. At the first performance of Arensky's quartet, the slow movement was so well received that Arensky soon arranged it as a separate piece for string orchestra, Op. 35a, in which form it has remained among the most popular of all Arensky's works.