Hammerklavier: Revered and feared unlike almost any other work

The rising and descending scales at the end of the second subject of the slow movement are similar in character to the scales heard towards the end of the Missa Solemnis, as the words “Dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace) are sung. Ascribing adjectives to such moments exposes one to the danger of falling into the trap of cliches; but in both instances, I cannot help but think that Beethoven is describing eternity and consolation.

The common challenges of the Kinderszenen and the Hammerklavier

The inexhaustibility of the great composers is such that we can only begin to scratch the surface of what they offered us, and connections and threads we haven’t previously noticed are bound to appear. Ideally, I would want to bring myself to the point where, on stage, I can empty my head of everything I discuss in this post, and all these connections would somehow instinctively emerge. When I go off stage, they would pop back into my head and I’d be reminded of how baffled I was when I first discovered them.

Getting reacquainted with Mozart

A cadence is a three-chord sequence wrapping up a section in a musical work — usually a 6-4 chord, followed by a dominant seventh, and ending with a return to the tonic, which gives it the sense of closure. The cadenza in a concerto is an often (but not always) improvised passage or detour inserted by the performer between the six-four and the dominant seventh chords of a cadence, based on themes from the movement. I have written cadenzas for all the Mozart concertos that I played, unless Mozart himself provided one. In this entry, I describe some of the many things I discovered about the music I was playing by writing these cadenzas.

Pas pour le piano

We few, we lucky few, we band of pianists, blessed with the vastest of musical repertoires… Even the violin and the cello repertoires, not to mention those of other instruments, are paltry compared to what’s out there for us, pianists. This is because practically all composers, regardless of what their favored instrument was, have written for the piano. But not all. Indeed, three of my favorite composers — Bruckner, Elgar, and Berlioz — wrote nothing for the piano, which puts them in a class by themselves. I try to figure out what these composers have in common in this post with no video attached to it.

The necessity of embellishment in Mozart

When and how to embellish Mozart’s at times elliptical writing has been an art of long standing, and more recently, also a science. There is some documentary evidence showing how Mozart himself ornamented sections of his work that in other manuscripts, presumably intended to be performed by himself, appear without ornamentation. But such instances are few, and the texts that call for embellishment many. In this entry I show how the musical text itself holds the best clue as to whether a given section requires embellishing.

An ebullient precursor to modernism

At the beginning of the 20th century, Albéniz conceived of a new harmonic language, using dissonances as incidental ornaments, on top of the harmonies of tonal music, which he retained. This type of harmonic writing is rare in tonal classical music, but quite frequent in jazz. It is also responsible for the spontaneity and improvisational character of the music, where it is impossible to predict what the next dissonance will sound like.

The condensed brilliance of Mozart’s D major rondo

The late rondo in D major, a short and seemingly light piece, is a contemporary of such monumental works as the C minor piano concerto and The Marriage of Figaro. But it would be a serious mistake to think of it as trivial small fry. The way in which the various styles of music we are familiar to hear in Mozart’s works — operatic, symphonic, concertante, chamber — are combined in the rondo is reminiscent of Mozart’s substantial masterpieces, like the slow movement of the C minor concerto. Their presence within the narrow confines of the brief rondo makes K. 485 all the more remarkable.

The sumptuous and obsessive El Polo

The difference between a great composer and a virtuoso who composes is a much-debated topic. Here I wish to make the case for the place of Albéniz in the firmament of great composers, by looking at how El Polo, from the third volume of Iberia, is on one hand far-flung and sumptuous, and on the other, perfectly organic. “Polo” is a traditional Andalusian song (and dance), one of a set of musical forms known collective as the “flamenco palo.” The melancholy song is generally made up of four-line stanzas, each verse containing eight syllables. The last verse is often repeated. It has a 12-beat meter (alternative 3/4 and 6/8). Messiaen had especially high praise for El Polo, which apparently inspired the texture of some of his pianistic writing. In 1906, Albéniz said that with Book 3 of Iberia he “carried Spanishness and technical demands to the ultimate extreme.”