Debussy’s elusive footpath

Where do Debussy’s “Footprints in the snow” lead? This is the question I try to answer in this blog. Since the title of this prelude provides no clue, we must look for the answer in the music itself. Is the music leading in any particular direction, or is it mostly circling in one place? “Footprints” is at the center of the 12-prelude cycle, so a circular journey does make sense, but so does an understanding of “Footprints” as a transition from one section of the Preludes to the next.

Making the most out of obscurity

Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica when Mozart was a small child. The instrument was immensely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and many composers included it in their works. The Adagio by Mozart, which I discuss in this blog, is one of the many pieces written for it. Franklin’s glass harmonica has a range of 37 notes (some three octaves) in the upper range of the piano, and articulation is rather difficult when the sounds are produced by pressing wet fingers against rotating glass bowls. So what can Mozart make out of all these limitations? As it turns out, quite a bit. And rendering the work on the piano raises several intriguing questions.

Debussy’s unique uncertainty

The fascinating points of intersection and divergence between Debussy and Albéniz are strongly present in two pieces I discuss in this blog: La sérénade interrompue and El Albaicín. The difference I find most glaring is that while Debussy seems to observe the music happen, Albéniz experiences it. This is most poignant in the ending, where Albéniz’s spontaneousness is in stark contrast with Debussy’s calculatedness. While El Albaicín fades away slowly before taking the audience by surprise with a final outburst, La sérénade disappears before we notice it disappearing, leaving the audience surprised by the silence that follows the last figure.

The elegiac Scarlatti

Scarlatti, an exact contemporary of Bach and Handel (all three were born in 1685), spent much of his life in Spain and Portugal, away from the main centers of baroque music in Germany and Italy. In his isolation, he developed his own baroque style, which is often wild and uncouth, by learned standards. Some aspects of the music of Scarlatti do not show up elsewhere until Stravinsky and Bartok. The sonata in G minor, K. 426, which is the subject of this blog, is one of the more tame of his keyboard pieces, but it retains many of Scarlatti’s idiosyncratic rhetorical gestures.

Simple yet unusual: Bartók’s implied harmony

A melodic line can have an “implied” harmony, even if no other notes are sounding at the same time, because the melody is constructed in such a way that it strongly “suggests” a harmony that could accompany it. The listener’s ears fill in the missing notes, so that they can “hear” the implied harmony in their mind. In this way, an unaccompanied melody can imply a harmonic accompaniment, that is, the chords that are missing. Implied harmony is common in jazz and in unaccompanied solo pieces for string and wind instruments, for example, in Bach’s cello suites. It is quite rare in pieces written for the keyboard, where there are always plenty of fingers left to play the necessary chords in addition to the melodic line. Bartók’s Unisons is an exception, as I show in this blog.

Boating one’s way around the keyboard

Mikrokosmos contains 153 graduated piano pieces, assembled in 6 volumes. The first ones can be played by students in their first year (indeed, week) of piano tuition. The pieces in the last two volumes Bartók himself played in concert. All of them are witty, surprising, and instructive. And even the simplest ones, from the first volume, are never boring or primitive. Boating, from the fifth volume, juxtaposes several musical elements (pentatonic writing, quartal harmony, layering of sound) in the space of a little over one minute.

Schubert’s unique inaction and repetition

The Melodie Hongroise (Hungarian Melody) is a quintessentially Schubertian gem of a work: it is bittersweet, dainty and elegant, yet at the same time almost overwhelmingly haunting and penetrating. Hearing its folkish rhythms, articulation and lyrical qualities, one cannot mistake it for anything other than a work of Schubert. It has the unsaturated simplicity that sets Schubert […]