Friday, January 10, 2020

Scott - Entrada For Bowed Piano

The average grand piano has 230 strings for the 88 keys of the keyboard.  They range from 3 strings per note in the treble, to 2 strings further down the bass, until the lowest bass notes have but one string per note. The modern piano has seen an increase of the tension on the strings to improve the tone and volume of the instrument, and the tension on each string ranges from 160 to 200 pounds. That gives a total inner tension exerted on the frame of over 18 tons. That's the reason why pianos are so heavy. There is an inner  cast iron frame to deal with such tremendous forces, otherwise the instrument would collapse under the tension.

The preceding information is by way of introducing unconventional music for the piano. Imagine using fists or forearms to play clusters of keys, or playing directly on the strings by plucking, rubbing, or scraping with a finger nail. Or maybe inserting various things between the strings such as screws, bolts, washers, etc. Maybe tapping the strings with a finger, or bowing the strings.

All of this has been done. Some of it quite a while ago. And I can't help but think some of these techniques may not be all that good for piano actions or strings. With the cost of a modern 9 foot Steinway Model D being around $171,000, I would think that sticking nuts and bolts and fingers inside and using the piano in ways it was not designed for may not be too wise, despite the interesting sounds achieved.

Henry Cowell composed pieces that consisted of tone clusters, groups of notes played by the fist or forearm, such as his piece The Tiger of 1928. And pieces to be played on the strings directly, such as the Aeolian Harp of 1923 where the piano keys are silently depressed and the opens strings are played by a finger gliding over them, and The Banshee of 1925, where the damper pedal of the piano is kept down while fingers pluck, glide and scratch over the strings.

The notorious bad-boy of music John Cage developed the Prepared Piano where he put all manner and sizes of nails, screws, nut, bolts, and other paraphernalia between the strings. The result was sounds that were completely different than a piano, such as the Sonata V For Prepared Piano of 1946.

Add to all that the idea of the bowed piano, first suggested by composer Curtis Curtis-Smith in 1972, where pieces of mono-filament fishing line and other items that are rosined and positioned under the strings so that when the performer pulls back and forth on the fishing line a tone is produced. Enter Stephen Scott,  a composer who took the idea and created a group of players known as The Bowed Piano Ensemble. Scott composes for this group, and there are many techniques besides bowed piano that he uses to create an interesting sound palette. One of the pieces he has composed for the instrument is titled Entrada. The various techniques can be seen in the video below of The Bowed Piano Ensemble playing the piece.

By my reckoning, there are 10 performers crowded in and around the piano, so this piece takes much coordination and choreography to play successfully.


Thursday, January 9, 2020

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, Nos. 13-18

Johann Sebastian Bach was an artist that was in many ways self-taught. He did have instruction from his family in clavier, violin, and organ, but he wasn't satisfied with just that. He wanted to know as much as he could about his art and craft, so he copied out music of other composers as well as traveled to hear masters play so he could learn from them. A case in point is the 250 mile journey he took on foot when he was 20 years old from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear and learn from the famous (at the time) organist Dietrich Buxtehude.  This wasn't the first time Bach had traveled a long distance. At the age of 15 he traveled from Ohrdruf to Lüneburg, a distance of 200 miles, to study at St. Michael’s School where he sang in the choir.

All of the travel, study and exposure to other musicians and music gave him an insight into the craft that made him a great performer, composer and teacher. Indeed, his duties at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig,  a position that he held from 1723 until his death, required that he supervise and provide the music for 4 churches in the community, play the organ as well as teach the choir and instrumentalists. Bach must have had a robust constitution most of his life, for he was a very busy man.

He taught his herd of children as well. some of them went on to make music their life and were very influential in their time. Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote the first biography of Bach in 1802. Forkel knew some of his children, and C.P.E. Bach especially gave Forkel insight into the elder Bach's teaching methods. Forkel wrote:
To teach well a man needs to have a full mind. He must have discovered how to meet and have overcome the obstacles in his own path before he can be successful in teaching others how to avoid them. Bach united both qualities. Hence, as a teacher he was the most instructive, clear, and definite that has ever been. In every branch of his art he produced a band of pupils who followed in his footsteps, without, however, equaling his achievement. For months together he made them practice nothing but simple exercises for the fingers of both hands, at the same time emphasizing the need for clearness and distinctness. He kept them at these exercises for from six to twelve months, unless he found his pupils losing heart, in which case he so far met them as to write short studies which incorporated a particular exercise.
The Well-Tempered Clavier was written with this in mind, as well as being an example of how a well-tempered tuning of keyboard instruments opened up the possibility of playing in all 24 major and minor keys. As Bach wrote in the preface to the work:
...for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.
Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F-sharp Major, BWV 882 - A prelude of persistent dotted eighth note patterns. It is in 2 voices with the dotted note patterns appearing in almost every bar, usually in one voice or the other, seldom at the same time.  The mood is maintained throughout until a few bars before the end when the music drifts into F-sharp minor. But this is momentary, and the prelude ends with a cadence to F-sharp major.

The subjects of Bach's fugues are like the seeds of plants. Some are simple, some are not, most of the subjects of his keyboard fugues are short, mainly because they were meant to be played on the non-sustaining keyboards of the harpsichord and clavichord. The fugues written for organ for the most part have longer subjects. The subject of this fugue is unusual in that it begins on the leading tone, that is the seventh note of the F-sharp major scale, instead of a note within the F-sharp major triad.  This doesn't guide the ear to the key of the piece, but rather away from it. The music winds its way, but Bach brings it all to a satisfying conclusion.

Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp Minor, BWV 883 - This prelude is in 3 voices, but they are not equal in importance. The upper voice is dominant, and the music floats at an easy pace, with tinges of melancholy here and there. A little over halfway through, Bach stops the music altogether for a pause that leaves the music hang in midair.  The music returns and makes its way to the final cadence in F-sharp major.
Bach's fugues are challenging not only for the technical aspects of playing the notes. There is also the questions the performer has to make on which is more important in each fugue; the harmonic structure, melodic structure, phrasing and so on. For a performance to be all it can be of any of these works, a performer needs to make decisions. That is why there are so many books written about the WTC, there is a wealth of ideas contained in each pairing of prelude and fugue, and a tremendous amount in the entire two book set. The subject of this fugue is a little longer than three bars, and it is is in 3 voices.  There is much melodic content in the fugue besides the subject itself, and Bach uses the subject as the thread to tie it all together.

Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G Major, BWV 884 - as evidenced by this prelude and the G major prelude in the first book, the key of G major was a playful one for Bach. It is in 2 voices (for the most part). It is one of the few preludes to be in 2 repeated parts, with the second part twice as long as the first. The prelude has a resemblance to some of the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Whether Bach actually knew of Scarlatti or his music isn't definite, but at this time in his life Bach would sometimes write in the more contemporary galant style.  With characteristic running sixteenth notes, the prelude is lively and vivacious.

The running sixteenth notes continue in this novel subject of 5 measures. This subject statement is heard only 6 times throughout, with the balance of the music taken up with counter subjects and episodes. In its liveliness, it is a perfect accompaniment to the prelude heard before it.

Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G Minor, BWV 885 - This prelude is one of three in the entire set of 48 to have a tempo designation, Largo. Bach was adamant that this was not to be taken fast, but slow and stately.

Beginning on the second beat, the subject of this 4-voiced fugue has the 4th degree of the G minor scale (C) played out seven times at the end of it. As soon as the seventh C is sounded, the counter subject begins before the subject makes its second entry. The entry of the other two voices follows this pattern.  The subject matter returns many times with changes in key, sometimes it plays against another version of the subject heard in a different voice. The music does end with a Picardy third (that is, with a major chord) but just barely. The final note of the fugue is a major third, B natural.

Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A-flat Major, BWV 886 -
A prelude of calm and sweetness of harmony. Although it is for the most part in two parts,s there are instances of chordal structures within it.

The subject of this 4-voiced fugue begins after an eighth rest and lasts for two measures. The seeming rhythmic simplicity hides the subtle syncopations within the piece.

Prelude and Fugue No. 18 in G-sharp Minor, BWV 887 - This prelude has unusual dynamic designations in it not normally found in the The Well-Tempered Clavier. In the third bar there is the term piano, while in the 5th measure there is marked forte.  Perhaps this was meant for a harpsichord that could allow for different dynamics, or on the clavichord which was capable of slight variations in dynamics. The rest of the prelude is not so marked, but perhaps Bach did it to make the point that there were to be echo effects to be played in this prelude whenever the music demanded it and the instrument allowed it. There are two sections, almost of equal length; the second section has two more bars than the first.  The prelude is mostly melody and accompaniment with little counterpoint involved.

The subject is 4 measures long, entirely in 8th notes, and the fugue looks remarkably plain on the printed page, but roughly half way through the fugue, Bach introduces a second subject that is more chromatic and of a different rhythm than the first. This helps the listener detect changes between the first half and the second half of the fugue, and helps avoid monotony. Each subject enters and leaves with differing voices, and aided by syncopation, they add variety. There are no increases of tension, no contrasts of major and minor. By the use of chromaticism and different motifs for each subject, as the subjects themselves, to create a mood of subtle color shifts.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 1 In F Minor Opus 10

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his first symphony to complete his studies in composition with Maximilian Steinberg at  the Petrograd Conservatory Of Music (now known as St. Petersburg Conservatory Of Music). The work was written in 1925 and premiered in 1926 by the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Shostakovich had been quite precocious at the conservatory, and was moved ahead of some classes due to his musical gifts. He was but 19 when the symphony premiered, and his mentor Alexander Glazunov, who was the director of the conservatory, used his influence to get the symphony performed.

The symphony was a rousing success from the first hearing, and the word spread to other countries and conductors, with Bruno Walter performing it in Europe and Leopold Stokowski in the U.S. By the time Shostakovich was 21, he was internationally known through this first symphony and was already being compared to Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

The first years after the October Revolution of 1917 saw the arts grow into an extension of the Communist State. Experiment was encouraged and rewarded, and Shostakovich was as much a product of this as any. He was born in 1906, so the Revolution was in his memory, with all the excitement and hardships that were to follow. Shostakovich was feted after the performance of the 1st Symphony, and it wasn't until a few years later that he came to lose his favored composer status to what critics (instructed by Stalin no doubt) labeled 'formalism'. What that term actually meant, no one seemed to know, but if you were involved with the arts and were labeled as a Formalist, there could be dire consequences.

I. Allegretto - Allegro non troppo -  The first movement is full of turns of melody and economy of orchestration that keeps the listener's ear interested. So interesting are the sounds and uses of the orchestra that it can be difficult to realize that this movement is in traditional sonata form, but Shostakovich showed his mastery of the form as all good composers who have used it; namely that it is so well written that the form isn't obvious.  Shostakovich's 1st Symphony is scored for the usual large orchestra, with the addition of many percussion instruments and the piano. The symphony opens with an introduction with trumpet and bassoon. Other instruments play off against each other with the strings leading into a theme is that derived from the opening music. It is a march that twists and turns in colorful orchestration, then leads to a gentle waltz-like second theme in the flute that is accompanied by strings pizzicato. The scoring is light, like chamber music. The opening theme reappears in a solo violin retelling. The orchestra gradually comes into full force in the development section. The first theme begins the recapitulation, followed by the waltz theme of the flute. A coda consists of restating the opening theme, and the movement ends very quietly.

II. Allegro - Meno mosso -  The movement begins with the cellos and contra basses playing the same notes, but the cellos play a few different note values in addition to the eighth notes in the contra basses. This leads to the cellos finishing the motive ahead of the contra basses. The main theme that follows is played by clarinet over a pizzicato accompaniment. The strings take up the theme with the piano. The second theme is more tranquil, but with added background of occasional snare drum. The first theme reappears in the bassoon before the piano enters with a long run and its version of the theme. The second theme returns in a more boisterous version that ends with heavy chords from the piano, and the music slowly dies away, with a final comment from the snare drum.

III. Lento - Largo - Lento - The third movement does away with the grotesque humor of the scherzo with a solo oboe set against a string accompaniment. This theme is taken up by cello, and the brass have a crescendo that leads to a calm section that plods along in an increasing sense of gloom. The strings give a sense repose, but the snare drum quietly enters into the mood and makes a crescendo that connects the third movement to the fourth.

IV.  Allegro molto -  The music continues in gloomy tones until the clarinet and piano bring back more boisterousness. The movement bounces back and forth from fast to slow, serious to playful. The music is somewhat episodic, but colorful as the shifting moods lead to a tremendous crescendo in the full orchestra. This crescendo ends suddenly with the entrance of the solo timpani playing in triple fortissimo a rhythmic motive from the third movement. This is played three times, each time with a lower dynamic, until elements from the third movement return. The orchestra mulls these motives over until a trumpet signals the orchestra to begin a loud coda with fanfares and the final chords.