Of the special bond between pianists and pianos – director’s cut

A shortened version of this article has appeared in the Guardian (link)
It has been originally written in Hebrew for the Opus magazine (link)

Today I would like to talk about pianos. Not necessarily from a historic point of view (invented by Bartolomeo Christofori around 1700, attained its present shape and characteristics towards the later part of the 19th century), nor from the technical one Grand piano action(a complex mechanism of levers, rails, pins, wires and springs that transmits the pressing of a key onto the hammer, which is then thrown and hits a string), but rather from the personal one – to discuss the special bond between the pianist and the piano. Without a doubt, violinists have just as personal and special a bond with the violin they play on, and so do trumpeters, clarinetists or guitarists—but as opposed to them (and, indeed, to all other musicians, except for organists), the absolute majority of pianists do not play their own instrument onstage. The piano is not portable, it is cumbersome and costly to transport, and hence we have a kind of a status quo: the pianist practises at home on their piano, but performs at concert halls, each one with another, different, strange piano. A piano that belongs to the hall, and which, in most cases, we haven’t touched prior to setting foot at the hall that morning.

Piano at Musikverein (photo: Bösendorfer / David M. Peters)

The moment of the first encounter is worth describing. You enter the hall, looking forward to (or full of trepidation before) the encounter with a new and unknown piano (those of us who are optimistic hope for a good piano each time). The instrument stands in the middle of the stage, you approach it, remove your watch, empty your pockets of wallet and phone, sit down, adjust the piano bench… All the while somebody from the hall stands nearby, also expectant: while you may travel from one hall to another, and for you this is just one piano out of many, for them it is the only piano that matters, and they care, sometimes very much so, about the way you react and whether the piano pleases you.

So, the promoter stands beside you, waiting politely, hopefully, expectantly, and you, fully aware of the importance of the moment, finally play something on the keyboard: a chord, a passage, a few bars from one of the works—and the piano immediately ceases being a generic and unknown something, a specimen of the grand pianos genus, and becomes the most concrete, tangible, real thing there is. This is the piano you are going to play on tonight, and your encounter has just begun.

***

Piano lore can be summarised in a few short sentences: 

  1. There are good and bad pianos. This might sound self-evident, but it is possibly the most basic fact in a pianist’s life. Both kinds are to be found in all sizes, manufactured by all piano firms, and at any price point. That is to say that a concert grand piano (2.70m or more) costing over £100,000 can be bad.
  2. Size both matters and does not matter. Smaller can be better than larger, but between two good pianos, the sound of the larger one will be richer (a function of the longer strings and larger soundboard). Sound volume and projection also change with size; a baby concert grand (1.50m) will struggle to fill a 2,000 seater hall.
  3. One can get used to any piano. Seriously. There are no exceptions to this rule, even when the instrument is terrible. The better a piano is, the less time is required, and vice versa. At the same time, a good piano is multi-layered; there is always something else to discover in its tone. A bad piano functions in what-you-see-(or rather hear)-is-what-you-get mode, producing the same sound even after hours of practice.
  4. One can practice on a piano to one’s heart’s content, and it’s certainly necessary and helpful, but if you want to really get to know a piano, there is no better way than playing a full concert on it, before a real audience. By the end of the concert, if not earlier, you will know the instrument; my word of honour..

It is perhaps important to mention another thing. When we see two identical objects, our natural assumption is that they are indeed identical, and if there is an element of function to those objects, we expect the two to function in the same way (we wouldn’t expect, let’s say, two cars of the same model to accelerate or brake differently). With pianos the situation is fundamentally different—they are unique, each one of them. The manufacturing process of a grand piano takes up to three years, and includes hundreds of processes, both active, such as construction and assembly, and passive, physical and chemical, the drying of layers of lacquer or glue, for example; also, adjustments, most of them hand-made, and each one of them affecting the final tone of the piano (here’s a website explaining the process in detail). So, in the end, two pianos of the same model, manufactured by the same company in the same year, will sound differently, even to an untrained ear. The contrast in sound between different models, or between pianos made in different years or from different companies will be even more apparent.

This is to say that looking at the shiny and beautiful outward appearance of the piano is not of much help; it can conceal a superb or a very bad instrument. This trait—each piano being one-of-a-kind—guarantees a challenge, an interesting or a frustrating one, depending upon the circumstances. On one hand, there is a constant element of uncertainty, adding to the pressure and stress that accompany each concert. But this basic difference also has a positive side to it, as the pianist is involuntarily affected by the piano. We react to the tone we hear during the performance, we are forced to overcome certain technical difficulties while playing, but it goes beyond that: one could say that a good piano (like a good conversation partner) can offer new directions to our interpretations. Should we be flexible and spontaneous while playing, should we not force our will upon the instrument, but rather remain attentive to its tonal character and try to connect with it in an organic way, the piano will prove capable of taking us to lands far more distant and interesting than those we had foreseen or planned. Those lands would change from one piano to another: an instrument which possesses a warm, human tone will lead the performer to a very different place than one whose tone is transparent and crystalline.

Personally I see an advantage in this: each concert, even if the pieces in it were performed dozens of times, becomes an journey of discovery; everything remains fresh and new, and you are kept on the edge of your chair, alert and wide–awake, curious to find out how the Beethoven, the Ravel or the Rachmaninov will sound tonight. This is anti-routine. (One cannot talk about routine when discussing musical performance, of course, but this element of uncertainty, brought about by the unending variety of pianos, makes each concert even less commonplace; and if were it removed from the equation; if, one day, I were given the opportunity of playing each concert on my home piano—an instrument I know inside out—I think I would miss the situation which exists today.)

***

To return to our narrative: those first sounds which you had just played will give you an admittedly approximate, but usually quite accurate picture of the instrument’s sound. And you know right away, even before the brain has the time to process what it has heard. There is certainly room for adjustments and acclimatisation, both to the piano and to the acoustics in the hall, but I can’t recall a single instance in recent years in which the initial gut reaction was completely refuted later. Several hours of practising will yield an improvement of X percent in the sound you are able to draw out of the piano and will help you overcome the technical imperfections of the keyboard, but unfortunately no number of hours of practice will change a ‘don’t like’ into a ‘like’. Unfortunately, I say, as I would have loved the situation to be different.

For if you think of it, we are completely at the mercy of the piano currently standing on the stage. It is our main ally for that night, and those short moments of initial playing reveal the character of our future brother-in-arms. A comfortable piano, one which feels as the natural continuation of one’s hand, can help a pianist who feels insecure to forget their worries during the performance and to become engrossed in the music and in the process of playing. And exactly so, a bad piano can heighten the feeling of insecurity, can treacherously ruin the pianist’s concentration (always at the most dangerous moment), and make even the best-prepared pianist trip and fall. This, just from the technical side of the equation; speaking of music, those first notes are a forecast, a sign of things to come—whether the piano’s sound will give inspiration, will invite the pianist to a profound performance full of poetry, or contrarily, whether it will thwart any attempts to make the keyboard sing, to transcend the lines of notes and to try and touch the listeners’ souls.

These are, of course, extreme examples. Pianos that ‘make or break’ concerts are not ubiquitous. But the piano’s influence over the performance is very tangible, and just imagine how grand it would be if we were able to turn ’cooking pans’ (as one wryly calls unsalvageable instruments in Russian) into piano-masterpieces by sheer willpower and determination. Yet the only possibility to affect significantly the tonal character of a piano is meticulous work done by a highly-qualified technician; work which takes hours if not days, and this is rarely possible under normal circumstances. Mostly, what stands on the stage is all there is, and this is the main reason why an initial ‘like’ is so gladdening, and a ‘don’t like’ is so unfortunate.

But what is this ‘like’? I’ll try to describe my dream piano: it possesses a singing, translucent sound with a long decay, rich, varied, lacking any aggression (what is called a ‘banging sound’—this is 90% the responsibility of the pianist, but the piano contributes to it as well, as, if its natural sound is too open and shouting, it will be harder to control). Every note is perfectly formed, rounded and bell-like. It has as broad a dynamic range as possible between pianissimo and fortissimo, with many levels in-between. All the registers of the keyboard (bass, middle, top) are uniform in colour, and there are no weak or unclear areas; nor are there any overly bright or open ones. Mechanically, an utterly even keyboard (keys equally weighted), a touch neither too heavy nor too light, allowing full control over the sound. And all of this is combined and united—a whole larger than the sum of its parts; a piano with an intriguing and fascinating character, making each interaction with it a true experience and inviting you to go further afield and explore new ares and layers in the works that you are playing.

I may have got slightly carried away. But a performance on such a piano can be unforgettable.

From this you can infer the ‘don’t like’: a metallic or unclear sound, flat and unvaried, a narrow dynamic range, an uneven keyboard, lack of personality—you get the idea. A dull, characterless piano, “neither fish nor meat”, to quote another Russian saying, is included in this category too.

You might well think that the demands are exaggerated, and how much of it will the audience hear anyway? This is both true and not true. The demands are high indeed, and each and every pianist has their own ‘bugs’. Some are especially sensitive to technical imperfections, some care about nothing beyond the beauty of the sound. Neither will every pianist be so demanding: the scale ranges from Sviatoslav Richter, who displayed almost complete indifference to the subject (though one can infer from his interviews that he was very well aware of the quality of the pianos he played on), and up to Gregory Sokolov, who is nearly infamous for the demands he poses of his pianos: demands which are fully justified, in my opinion, as Sokolov’s control of the keyboard is peerless in all what regards colours, nuances and separation of voices. The rest are located between these two poles, and in my opinion (which I cannot prove scientifically) we would find more pianists closer to Sokolov’s side of the scale, than to Richter’s.

But if we regard this from a broader perspective, these demands are not so different from those posed by any artist or craftsman of the tools and materials with which they work: the painter the brush, paints and canvas (and the light); the cook the knives and ingredients from which to prepare the meal; the photographer the camera and lenses (and once again the light!), and, if we go a bit further, the race-car driver the car they drive (which perhaps is not such a far-fetched comparison, as both cases concern the interaction of a single person with a single yet highly complex tool). The schema is similar: an artist, in whatever field, will obtain a fine result even when working with subpar materials and tools, but will achieve so much more when those are choice (on the other hand, no-one but a true master will be able to draw out the true potential of the very best materials and tools). Hence, perhaps, it is not surprising that most pianists tend to demand more rather than less from pianos.

The answer to second part of that question—what of this will reach the audience’s ears?—might come as a surprise: quite a lot. Speaking with audience-members post-concert, I have found that the listeners were very much aware of the beauty of the piano’s sound: a singing vs. a harsh/metallic sound, as well as of its volume—whether one needs to strain oneself in order to hear clearly, or whether the sound carries and easily fills the hall. However, it seems that unless the piano is singularly good or bad, after a short while the listeners’ attention switches from the instrument to the interpretation, and from then on it’s all in the performers’ hands.

An interesting question which is related to the subject, is how two different pianists would sound if ever they played on the same instrument. I once had a heated discussion with a lecturer (a musicologist, not a pianist himself) who maintained that the difference in the sounds of Horowitz and Rubinstein (click the links for a comparison) stemmed only from the differences in their pianos, and if one had only seated them behind the same instrument, they would have immediately sounded the same. At the time I could find no riposte (though I sensed this assertion was absurd), while today I would first of all refer him to a recording of any round of whichever piano competition: it is enough to hear two contestants playing on the same piano and the argument collapses immediately, as those are significant and easily audible differences. One could also compare recordings by the same pianist throughout various decades: to go on with the example of Horowitz and Rubinstein, we will find that there is much more resemblance between the sound of young Horowitz and that of mature Horowitz than between Horowitz and Rubinstein at any given point of time. In other words, each interpreter has their own specific sound which they try to reproduce on every piano they play on. Perhaps this is another way of judging the worth of an instrument: how easy it is to produce from it the sound the pianist desires.

So where does this difference stem from? My opinion is that the ‘sound’ of pianist A or B is not a simple variable but a complex one which includes both the way a single sound is produced (where there are numerous options as well, such as which muscles take part—whether the fingers only, or the palm as well; the forearm, the upper arm or the entire arm from the shoulder, or even from the shoulder blades—how tense or relaxed those muscles are; which joints are employed as ‘shock absorbers’ to avoid a harsh sound, etc.), but also the use of pedal, the way the voices are separated (such as the difference in sound strength between the melody and the accompaniment), the rubato or ‘stolen time’—the prolongation of certain notes at the expense of others to gain freedom of musical expression—and most probably many other variables, which can all be combined in countless variations and which we, the listeners, perceive as a single element, the sound of the player.

Let us return one last time to our narrative: we have tried the piano, have had the first impressions, our heart rejoiced or fell in disappointment, and then practising begins. Without our noticing, a slow and interesting process of acclimatisation occurs: the aural and tactile equivalent of eyes adjusting with time to darkness. Our ears require time to get used to the specific way the sounds spreads in that hall, and our fingers need time to adjust to this specific keyboard. The body does it by itself, and it seems that nothing is required besides time and an unwillingness to give up, plus often reminding oneself of Piano Lore Point No. 3 (“one can get used to any piano”). Several hours pass, and suddenly—it is always the same: “wait a minute, how did this happen?”—the sound becomes fuller, deeper, you have more control over hues, the piano feels less and less as strange, uncharted territory. This is the time when the practice session is at its most productive: our growing acquaintance with the instrument spurs us to intensify our attempts, as we want to test our newly found control over the sound in many different parts of that night’s programme. Simultaneously, the intensive work accelerates the speed of getting used to the instrument. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s a virtuous circle; a good place to be.

Whether we managed to fully adapt to the piano or not, the time comes, and we go onstage, take a bow, and sit behind the piano with a clear and focused knowing: this is for real. A few seconds of concentration, hands are raised onto the keyboard, the fingers play the first notes, and… wait, is it the same piano? Nearly always a small (or a big) surprise awaits us in those first notes: with the presence of the audience the acoustics in the hall has changed imperceptibly (or unrecognisably), and we need a bit of extra time (or half the concert) to re-adapt. This is the customary explanation; but it seems to me there is another element at work: the most intensive concentration during practice hours cannot compare with the standard concentration one maintains at a concert. For the duration of the live performance we simply hear things differently, as if our ears’ capability became augmented. The silence is different too: the silence of an empty hall is much weaker than the live, breathing silence of a hall filled with attentively listening people. I often feel that at that moment the connection to the outer world is severed, and we find ourselves in a kind of enclosed space and time, in which nothing exists beside the audience, the piano, the music and the player, all united by the silence. And then it should come as no surprise that the piano sounds different at first: we have been transported into a world of our own.

***

What drives us during the daily practice sessions is the love we feel for the composers and the musical worlds they created in their works. Before a concert, our appreciation for the audience is added into the mix, as is our desire to share with the listeners the feeling of wonder, nearly of awe, which stems from the magical process of creating the music anew on the stage. And at the moment we begin to play it is the piano which is the centre of our existence. Imagine the silence just before the concert begins, out of which emerge the first notes of… Beethoven’s 4th concerto, with their softness and nobility, or the toll of funeral bells in the opening of Rachmaninov’s 2nd concerto, or the luminous, polished tones of the opening Aria from the Goldberg Variations, or any other piano composition, of which there is a myriad, and there you shall find our love for the instrument itself, for the enormous richness of sonorities hidden within it, a richness only limited by our imagination, a richness sometimes discovered at this very moment, on the stage, in the presence of the listeners. And there you shall find our love for the gentleness and the might which is in the piano, for the virtuoso brilliance and the beautiful cantilena that it can produce, for the feeling of the keys beneath your fingers, for its polyphony and the multi-layeredness.

We finish the concert in full knowledge of all the secrets which the piano may have kept hidden previously: no corner remains unlit under the intensive spotlight of a live performance. If it was a good piano, we are left with a feeling of warmth and love, no longer directed towards some generic and abstract idea of ‘piano’, but rather to this very specific piano, the one that was a complete stranger to us not so long ago, and which we are now deeply and intimately acquainted with: the piano that shared with us the musical ups and downs of the previous two hours, the moments of musical elevation and also the blunders (and perhaps contributed to a few of them itself), that was an equal partner in all that had just now transpired onstage. And if we are due to leave on the following morning, heading to another town and another hall, in which there is also a new, different and unknown piano, then the feelings of warmth and love are tinged with sadness over the prompt farewell.

So when you next hear me or any other pianist complain about the great challenge inherent to our profession (“there is a new piano to get used to every time”), don’t believe us, or, at least, take our words with a large grain of salt.

When the world comes crashing down – a personal interpretation of Ravel’s La Valse

It is hard to think of a work by the French composer Maurice Ravel that would surpass his Boléro in fame and renown. The piece, performed for the first time in 1928, became an immediate success, much to the surprise of Ravel, who regarded it with no little Maurice Ravelcondescension, said it consisted wholly of “orchestral tissue without music” and was certain that orchestras would refuse to play it. The Boléro was the last link in a long chain of dance music composed by Ravel, some of it written for the ballet, some of it conceived as purely instrumental music – as stylized dances for the orchestra or for piano. Dances permeate his work, from the Menuet antique he composed when he was 20, up to the beautifully melancholic slow waltz which forms the second movement of his Concerto in G, one of his last works. Within this group, among the menuets, rigaudons, forlanes and pavanes (which were all considered antiquated already in the 19th century) one also finds several waltzes, dances from the not so distant past: the aforementioned waltz from the Concerto in G, a string of Valses nobles et sentimentales for piano, written in 1911, and one other work, called simply La Valse, which is the subject of  this article.

The waltz, which stems from the Walzer and the Ländler (both peasant dances, popular throughout Austria, Bavaria and the Tyrol since the 1750s), became fashionable in the Viennese salons by the end of the 18th century, and spread out to other countries during the 19th century. Ravel spoke of his attraction to the waltz’s “wonderful rhythms”, and of the joie de vivre that he felt was expressed in the dance. As early as 1906 he mentioned his plans for writing a piece in tribute to the waltz form and to the “Waltz King”, Johann Strauss the Son. Strauss, who during his lifetime composed over 400 waltzes, polkas, marches and quadrilles (as well as 16 operettas, one opera and a ballet called “Cinderella”) was largely responsible for the  great popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century, and many of the best-known Viennese waltzes were composed by him; among others, By the beautiful blue Danube – likely the most famous of them all:

This, therefore – the embodiment of elegance and suggested sensuality – was the music to which Ravel wished to write a tribute. The composition he heard in his imagination and which he at first intended to call “Vienna”, was to be “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz” and was mingled in his mind with the idea of a “fantastic and fatal whirling”. (The word fatal is somewhat bizarre in the context of the Viennese waltz, which is by its nature bright and devoid of care, and we’ll come back to it later). As such things happen, the work was only completed in 1920, fourteen years and one world war later. Ravel returned to his idea in 1919, prompted by a commission from Sergei Diaghilev, the famous Diagelevimpresario and the founder of the Ballets Russes in Paris, for whom Ravel had previously composed the music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1909-1912).

The title of the new work became La Valse (The Waltz) and Ravel worked on three versions simultaneously: a version for a large symphony orchestra, a version for piano solo and a version for two pianos. The latter was the one in which the work was first performed for Diaghelev, who promptly rejected it, saying the work was a masterpiece but only a “portrait of a ballet”, not a real ballet. His reaction put an end to the relationship between the two: when they met again several years later Ravel refused to shake Diaghelev’s hand, and Diaghelev, offended, challenged Ravel to a duel, which luckily never took place. That was their last encounter.

***

Disregarding Diaghelev’s opinion about La Valse’s danceablity, we know that Ravel conceived it entirely as a visual work and had even written a detailed programme for its first part:

“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees […] an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth […]. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.”

The music follows Ravel’s plan to the letter. (I present two recordings with this listening guide; the first is clear and transparent, and therefore accompanies the explanations well, but except for its ending it is not, in my opinion, very exciting or compelling, so I would suggest following the guide with this recording and at the end listening to an alternative version – one conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and imbued with great dramatic power, despite the lesser quality of the recording.)

The work begins with a muted, undefined hum in the double-basses; without measure, without beat. Out of this chaos, a few bars later, the main uniting element of the work emerges: the waltz rhythm (00:06). At first just two notes of the three, they are later joined by the third note (00:11), in a kind of unending hypnotic gesture. Finally, a fragment of a melody appears above these (00:14). It is interrupted (you will hear the flashes in the violins at 00:17 and 00:24), just a hint, a suggestion of a tune, of a melodic element. It returns at 00:29, more strongly present, and with it the clouds begin to disperse and other waltz melodies are briefly revealed, before the endless whirling carries them away from us (at 00:48, 00:54, 01:01 and 01:08). Ravel wondrously manages to transmit the feeling of opacity; his notes paint before us the clouds which obscure the scene and the proceedings. Everything is half-concealed, and we are left tense and alert, not knowing where the music will lead us.

And then, at once, the mist is lifted, and the main melody appears before us (01:23) – the great hall filled with the whirling waltzing crowd.  Here is the epitome of elegance, of charm, of good taste. The harmonic key of the work is finally revealed as well: in the opening not only the rhythmic pulse and the melody but the harmony too was clouded and lacking a stable centre – and here, together with the appearance of the main melody, the soft radiance of  D major, the work’s main key, emerges as well. The melody is long and continuous; three relaxed, refined sentences, with accompanying waves in the celli and bass clarinet. In the fourth sentence (01:57) the melody passes to the flute, and the whole section finishes with a typical Viennese waltz ending (02:02). Another melody appears (02:06), highly sensuous, accompanied by glissandi in the harps (those are the gentle metallic slides, going up and down along with the melody, which you can hear clearly at 02:04, just before the melody begins) and very soon the whirling grows faster (02:30), the brass and the percussion join in, and we reach the first culmination of the work (02:40). This is the spot where, according to Ravel’s plan, the light of the chandeliers illuminates the grand hall.

From this point and up to the last third of the work Ravel presents a string of Waltz melodies, one more beautiful than the other. They are elegant (02:49), graceful (03:23), slightly melancholic (04:56); stormy (03:57 and 05:12), worried (05:25), amorous (05:48), intimate (06:35), and some, at least for me, have nothing at all to do with Vienna but sound rather like a musical representation of Paris from the Belle Époque (04:26). As befits the spirit of the Viennese waltz, all of the above (except, perhaps, the one at 05:25) have neither care nor worry, and all the time in the world belongs to them. The last of these melodies, light-footed and sprightly (07:17) ends with a big crescendo (07:38) after which it suddenly plunges into the depths (07:42-07:44), and we return to the swirling clouds of the beginning.

And from there it all goes downhill.

The change comes so suddenly that at first we don’t even understand that it is upon us. We have seemingly returned to the beginning of the work, to the formless chaos, but the sense of the gradual brightening, the expectation of something magical, of a beautiful fairy-tale that would arise and unfold before our eyes, is now replaced by an undefined anxiety, by a shadow of an unclear danger floating like a cloud on the horizon and disturbing the peace of mind of the dancers. Tiny changes in the harmony that are scattered between 07:44 and 08:24 – sometimes it’s just a single note which is lowered or raised by a semi-tone – as well as changes in the orchestration (the most salient of which comes at 08:12 – a short melody which was played by the flutes and strings in the beginning, and is now taken over by the trumpet and muted horns: a far-away and slightly frightening sound) darken the harmonic surroundings and dim the brilliance of the chandeliers.

Ravel, like a talented thriller movie director, doesn’t show us the danger directly, at least not yet. We perceive it only second-hand, through the reaction of the dancers. In those pages, which can in retrospect be viewed as the beginning of the end, Ravel presents no new musical material (except for a short, melody-less transition at 08:24). The beautiful, nonchalant, sensuous melodies that we heard before are all played again, one after another. But if before they were presented separately, each one leisurely occupying a section of its own, now they are quickly swapped, treading on each other’s toes (this comes to an extreme at 09:13, when two of the melodies appear simultaneously), as if the dancing couples started sensing that the time which the world allocated to their dancing was measured and limited, and as it runs out, so their determination to go on with their dance increases.

The mixing of melodies leads to a grand climax (09:30), after which the music apparently calms down (09:42-09:50) and starts on one last ascent, as if out of a desperate attempt by the dancers to pretend everything was fine (09:57-10:14). But the threat has already penetrated the waltz itself, and is now growing out of the waltzing rhythm in a piercing chromatic line (10:25-10:35). This spurs the dancers to increase the tempo more and more and the waltz’s character becomes truly hysterical, that “fatal whirling” which Ravel saw in his imagination. Following this mad whirl we arrive at the climax of the entire work, the utmost point of breadth and volume (10:51), hammered out by the combined forces of the entire orchestra.

Starting from 11:04, the dancers begin to fight the threatening danger, which now starts acquiring a musical representation. The waltz motif climbs higher (11:11, 11:19, 11:27), as if to escape the waves which wish to flood and destroy it (11:14-11:19, 11:22-11:27). And then, suddenly, the waves disappear and the waltz reigns supreme (11:30). Has it truly defeated the danger? At the moment it seems so, and the waltz celebrates with triumphant waves of its own (11:35-11:50). But within a few short moments, after a fleeting appearance of one of the waltz melodies (11:50-11:53), as if a remembrance of times past, the tables are overturned, and here, in the last pages of the work, Ravel finally shows us the true face of the danger we had only felt before, and which the dancers had seen gathering around them and besieging them. This is its face (12:00-12:10):

Malevolent shrieks and whistles in the woodwinds and trumpets, beastly roars in the trombones and horns, collapsing blows in the timpani, tam-tam and cymbals – there is nothing human there, not a sliver of melody; this is the advent of mindless aggression which has the sole aim of destroying everything in its path. And that’s it, our waltz – with all its melodies, so beautiful and elegant at first, so worried and determined later – goes under. The waves rise above the walls and cover the city, which disappears beneath the foaming waters. There’s nothing left here but one hysteric hastening towards the end, one last shriek and then, as if ironically, in the last two bars, Ravel brings a typical, pompous waltz ending (12:21-12:22), as if to say: yes, but actually nothing’s happened, I simply scared you, it’s all fine, look, there, a waltz, all as we agreed. But I think this is an empty gesture, which fools no one, and I am quite sure that Ravel did not think it would fool anyone. The waltz and those who danced it are utterly defeated and destroyed.

***

Who are those dancers, witnesses of the ruin of their dance and their world? What or who is La Valse about? Ravel placed the proceedings at the Imperial Court of Vienna, 1855, and if not for one certain thing we would have no reason to doubt that the music was related to a period of time 65 years into the past from the year of composition. This certain thing is the fact that La Valse in its final version was written in 1919-1920, immediately after the end of World War I. A war the like of which the world had never seen, and a war the horrors of which Ravel (who wanted to be a pilot but who was denied because of his age and state of health, and who in the end served as a truck driver along the Verdun front) had experienced both on himself and on his friends, many of whom perished in it. Moreover, we can assume that Ravel, like any great artist, did not exist in a vacuum, and could not remain indifferent facing the gigantic changes that the war brought about – changes, which we, perhaps a bit romantically, can call the end of the world as he knew it, or at least as the end of old Europe.

This is, of course, nothing but conjecture. Ravel, by the way, denied this interpretation, and said there was nothing in the music which would connect it to the situation in Vienna at the time of composition. He admitted the work could be seen as tragic, but said this was true of any sentiment if taken to its extreme. He repeatedly pointed out the date specified in the composition’s programme, 1855, and suggested seeing in La Valse nothing but what the music expresses: “an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement”. This is to say, to see in it pure, abstract music, which speaks of nothing and expresses nothing beside itself.

And with this open question I would like to finish: are an author’s words about their work those that should dictate the way in which we experience it? Or is it the case that once the work leaves the author’s hand, the author has no more control over it? Are we at all capable of experiencing a work as pure art without context? Will the fact that I presented to you the story of La Valse as I see and feel it, affect the way in which you experience a performance of it? Do we desire a performer in the most literal meaning of the word one who stays true to the author’s instructions and performs them – or rather an interpreter, one who would project themselves and their personality, their views about the work, and present to you a personal version of it?

I have no answer to these questions, at least no short and decisive one, so I will finish here, and leave the stage to a full version of La Valse conducted by Leonard Bernstein and played by the Orchestre National de France:

The last opera of Shostakovich

(I first wrote this article in Hebrew for alaxon.co.il)

“We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read”, thus the great and fictitious restaurant critic Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille. Every artist, whether a performer or a creator, is acquainted with the sinking feeling of opening the morning newspaper or a website, skimming through the content (the eyes stop on their own at key words), and then the growing realisation that the show, the book, the movie, the exhibition were slaughtered by the critic. But in our everyday experience, whether the artist was offended or not, the entire thing stays within the inter-personal field: as a dialogue between the critic and the artist (with the readers crowd for audience). But imagine a cardinally different situation – living under a dictatorship, where art is carefully monitored by the regime, and woe to the artist who treads a path frowned upon by the powers above! In such a case the ramifications of a bad review, especially one that reflects the regime´s opinion, might go much further than just a bruised ego.

shostSuch was the situation in Soviet Russia in 1936, when Dmitry Shostakovich, the young and well-known composer, bought the Pravda from the 28th of January. Almost at once he stumbled upon an editorial titled Chaos instead of music. The subtitle explained: “about the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” – an opera which Shostakovich finished composing in 1930 and which was at that time being staged at the Bolshoi, the main opera house of Moscow. And under those titles came the most slaughtering of slaughtering reviews:

 “From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible…

Here is music turned deliberately inside out in order that nothing will be reminiscent of classical opera, or have anything in common with symphonic music or with simple and popular musical language accessible to all…

While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism…

And all this is coarse, primitive and vulgar. The music quacks, grunts, and growls, and suffocates itself in order to express the love scenes as naturalistically as possible. And “love” is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner…” (trans. Victor Seroff)

And it goes on and on – “shrieks”, “cacophony”, “noise”, “nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music” – the critic didn´t like, to put it mildly (we will return later to the question of that anonymous critic´s identity). But while the quotes above could have – theoretically – appeared in a review dated from our time (with the exception of the “socialist realism”, to which we will also come back), the following lines would have caused greater bewilderment:

“The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demands of Soviet culture…

…[this] carries into the theatre and into music the most negative features of “Meyerholdism” infinitely multiplied…

The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear. Leftist distortion in opera stems from the same source as Leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching, and science.

Here we have “leftist” confusion instead of natural human music. The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning…

These paragraphs read as a political, rather than an aesthetic accusation, and were more dangerous by far. This is hard for us to grasp – why was the music expected to be… anything at all? Shouldn´t every artist create whatever stems from their own talent and their own inner world? And shouldn´t Art be judged only upon its own artistic faults and virtues?

Socialist Realism

To understand this, one must explain the official stand on art in the Soviet Union. “Art belongs to the people”, proclaimed Lenin, and as such art was bound to serve the people to whom it belonged (this, of course, was only a slogan; in reality, art “belonged” to those who had the power to permit or to prohibit the publication of a written text, the staging of a play or the filming of a movie – the Communist Party and those leading it). Art had to be catchy, simple, clear and accessible to all. In the 20´s there was still place in the Soviet Union for a multi-voiced artistic discourse, including, among others, avant-guard theatre, abstract painting, symbolist and nonsense poetry. But since the early 30´s, together with the ongoing struggle against the “enemies” within the Party (i.e. opposition, real or staged), the regime started severely censuring every art movement which strayed from the artistic ideology proscribed by the state – that selfsame socialist realism, by the name of which the music critics swore.

What was this strange beast? The official definition was given in 1934 at the first congress of the USSR Writers´ Union. An artist creating according to the principles of the socialist realism was expected to offer a “truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic representation of reality must be linked with the task of ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.” Couldn´t be clearer, could it? What it meant was that the artist was expected to stick to the truth, but only to that truth which suited the “ideological transformation” led by the Party. In addition, the demands for simplicity, clarity, accessibility were preserved – they were all united under the affable word narodnost´ – which can be loosely translated as “folksiness”.

Formalism, of which the opera was accused, was the embodiment of all things contrary to those demands. The historical roots of the definition relate to an artistic concept according to which form supersedes content in importance. But in the Soviet Union of the 30´s the term became an ideological cliche, and was applied to every work of art which was perceived as being “elitist”, and as such distanced from the people and from the demands of the socialist realism.

Shostakovich himself had been previously accused of being a formalist, including for Lady Macbeth, but had heretofore always defended himself bravely. In April 1935 he wrote in the newspaper Izvestia: “In the past I was harshly condemned by the critics, first and foremost for formalism. I categorically refused to accept those accusations and will not accept them. I never was and never will be a formalist. Slandering a work as formalist only because its language is complex, or because it is not immediately apparent, is an impermissible recklessness.” Responding in such a way at those times was an admirable feat of bravery and artistic integrity.

But now there was no one to respond to. The review was published anonymously – as an editorial – at the official Party newspaper. Herein lay the danger: such accusations, in particular coming from such an authoritative source, were reason enough for artistic blacklisting, public persecution, and in extreme cases for arrest, exile and even death. One needn´t look far to find an example: Vsevolod Meyerhold,Me who was mentioned by the critic (Shostakovich, according to him, brought “Meyerholdian” traits into the opera), was one of the greatest theatre directors of Russia. After the October Revolution he applied himself excitedly to the Socialist cause, and in the 20´s even enjoyed the regime´s plaudits. But towards the 30´s, a change in his artistic attitude led his plays to become increasingly abstract, grotesque and bitterly satirical. Those changes distanced him from the Party´s line, and elicited an unending stream of accusations of formalism. His art was denounced as foreign to the people and hostile to the realities of Soviet life. His end was tragic. In 1938 his theatre was shut down. A year later he was arrested, interrogated, and under harsh torture  made to “confess” to betraying his motherland and spying for the “capitalist enemy”: the British and the Japanese. In 1940 he was executed by firing squad. Prior to that, near the time of his arrest, his wife, the actress Zinaida Reich, was murdered in their apartment by multiple knife stabs.

They were not the only ones – in those years (and in fact, all through the existence of the Soviet regime), there was not a single person in the Soviet Union who could vouch for his own safety, the safety of his family or at least for his working place. Nothing granted protection from the regime – neither one´s position in the Party, nor one´s previous achievements, and certainly not one´s artistic talent. Therefore, the following sentence from the review reads especially dark and threatening: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”

The plot

Some of you might now be curious to know what happened in the opera, and what this formalistic monstrosity sounded like. To start with, a few words about the plot: Katerina, a young woman, has been married for five years to the merchant Zinovij Izmailov. Loveless and without children, Katerina is ready to claw walls out of endless boredom and sexual yearning:

“…but no one will come to me,
no one will put his hand round my waist,
no one will press his lips to mine.
No one will stroke my white breast,
no one will tire me out with his passionate embraces.”

Her husband lacks a backbone, and his old father, Boris, rules over house and trade with an iron fist. The merchant Zinovij departs the house – a dam has been breached, and his presence is necessary – and before leaving presents a new labourer, Sergey, handsome and arrogant, of whom the rumours whisper: was thrown out of his previous master´s house for getting involved in an affair with the mistress herself. Katerina encounters him chasing the cook at the head of a group of trade workers (today this scene is often staged as a gang rape), and their quarrel, which includes a bit of manhandling, excites him so strongly that he sneaks up to her room that night, to “borrow a book”. Books she has none: she herself is illiterate, and her husband doesn´t read books – but their conversation, which at first concerns Katerina´s bitter fate and Sergey´s “sensitive” soul, soon slides onto other rails. Sergey overcomes Katerina´s resistance (she is torn between her yearning for Sergey and the vow of chastity she had sworn to her husband) and carries her to the marital bed, accompanied by some very graphical music indeed (in 1935, the New York Sun critic dubbed it “pornophony”, which, one must admit, is pretty close to the truth).

Sergey is not the only one wishing for Katerina´s company. Her father-in-law, Boris, walks around the courtyard with a lantern, lurking for thieves, and upon seeing the light in Katerina´s window, decides to visit her too:

“Seems she can’t sleep;
of course, she’s a young woman;
hot‑blooded too
and there’s no one to console her.
Ah!
Now if I were younger,
just ten years or so,
what I’d do!
She’d have it hot from me;
hot, yes, by God, so hot,
it’d even be good enough for her!
A healthy woman like that
and no man around, no man,
no man, no man ,
no man, no man around;
no man, no man at all.
No man, no man,
no man, no man;
it’s dull for a woman without a man,
I’ll go and see her, yes I will!”

But too late – he hears the lovers part, realises right away what was going on (“You´re too late, Boris Timofeyevich!”), and rushes to catch Sergey as he climbs down the drainpipe. The punishment: 500 lashes given by his own hand, and all the while Katerina cries in supplication and hate and struggles against the labourers who hold her. When Sergey faints and the rest of the punishment is postponed to the following day (“We can´t do too much at once, or he´ll peg out.”), Boris, hungry and tired, orders Katerina to bring him food. She brings some mushrooms – leftovers from dinner – which please him a great deal (“They’re delicious mushrooms, you’re really an expert, Katerina, at preparing mushrooms”). But they soon seem to accord with him less: Katerina had put rat poison in his dish. Suffering terribly Boris Timofeyevich dies, and is buried.

afKaterina´s husband hasn´t returned yet, the father-in-law is done away with, and she enjoys a short spell of happiness (“Kiss me!…Not like that, not like that; kiss me so it hurts my lips and the blood rushes to my head and the icons fall from their shelves”). But Sergey refuses to cooperate. He is “not like other men, who don’t care about anything, so long as they’ve got a woman’s soft body to caress.” How can he, with his “sensitive soul”, see Katerina go to bed with her lawful husband? She calms him – “that won´t happen”. And indeed it doesn´t. One night her husband returns, accuses Katerina of cheating (“Everything, everything we´ve heard about your affairs, everything, everything”), struggles with her, she calls Sergey to protect her, and together they overpower Zinovij and strangle him. “Get a priest…”, gurgles Zinovij, as Sergey lets go for a moment.  “I´ll give you a priest all right!” answers Sergey, and hits Zinovij over the head with a heavy candlestick. After the deed, Sergey drags the body into the basement  by the light of Katerina´s candle, and hides it there. “Now you are my husband”, says Katerina.

But their joy doesn´t last for long. On their wedding day, a “shabby little man”, as he is called in the libretto, sneaks into the basement, looking for a bottle or two of vodka, and discovers the body. Terrified, he runs to the police. The accompanying music, however, radiates pure schadenfreude and even a kind of grotesque happiness derived from the entire affair. The singer Galina Vishnevskaya, one of the greatest interpreters of Katerina´s role, recalls in her memoir “Galina: the story of a life” (1991), that Shostakovich used to say about this scene: “to the police he runs, the bastard –  delighted he is going to inform… a hymn to the informers… it´s a hymn to all the informers!”

At home, during the wedding feast, Katerina notices the open basement door, and full of real terror, entreats Sergey to leave everything and run away. But too late – the police already knock at the gate (“You didn´t invite us, but here we are anyway! A little matter has arisen!…. There´s a little matter of a certain kind, to put it bluntly, a matter!”). Katerina gives herself up, Sergey tries to resist arrest but in vain. They are sentenced to a public flogging and exile to Siberia.

On the long and hard road to Siberia, Sergey´s “sensitive” soul tires of Katerina and he begins to woo another beautiful and young woman – Sonetka. She, on the other hand, feels no rush to oblige by granting him “his heart´s desire”, and demands a proof of his love. And what proof? Her stockings are torn, and she is cold. Let him get her another pair. Sergey exploits Katerina´s unwavering love for him and obtains the stockings, seemingly for himself. When Katerina sees her stockings on Sonetka´s legs, all becomes clear to her. And Sonetka even mocks her:

“Thank you, Katerina Lvovna,
thank you, Katerina Lvovna,
thank you for the stockings!
Look how fine they look
on my legs.
Seryozha put them on for me
and kissed my legs to make them warm!
Oh, Seryozha, my Seryozha,
Katerina’s a fool,
she couldn’t keep Sergey.
Ha, what a fool! Ha, what a fool!
And you won’t see your stockings again.
They’re mine now, look!
I’m warm now!”

Katerina doesn´t say a word. After a few moments, when she sees Sonetka standing on the edge of a cliff and looking down, she slowly approaches her, grabs her in her arms and together with her jumps into the foaming waters. End.

Indeed, this is no pleasant or easy entertainment. But what those paragraphs cannot convey is the boundless emotional power of the music that accompanies those rather horrible events. Like a mighty river flow, the tension doesn´t ease up from Katerina´s entry aria till the last knock of the timpani and the shouting chord that ends the opera. And all that time the music reflects not only the transpiring events, but first and foremost the feelings of the participants. Shostakovich distills the most basic feelings: fear, desperation, hate – but also passion, love, hope for happiness – and pours them into an aural picture projected to us, the listeners.

It is as if he broke the unspoken theatrical conventions, and instead of presenting us with theatrical feelings, penetrated deep into the tangible life with a might which permits no indifference on the listener´s part: under the music´s sway the listener is bound to feel. The effect is almost scary in its strength, and therein lies, in my opinion, a large part of the opera´s psychological power.

Listening guide

Luckily one can find online the entire Soviet musical film from 1966:

This is based on a shortened and edited version of the score, but among the existing recordings, I feel it´s hard to find another one so true to the spirit of the work, and one which can also boast of such a musical cast. (Moreover, it seems to me that the opera benefits from its very being filmed: the acting and the editing enhance the music a lot). Galina Vishnevskaya, whom I mentioned above, is the only one to both sing and act in the movie – the rest of the participants are movie actors, who “sing” in lip-sync with the singers.

I can warmly recommend watching the entire movie, but here´s a shortlist of the strongest moments: Sergey´s being flogged by Boris (41:25), the poisoning of Boris (44:53); Zinovij return and death (1:05:04); the scene with the shabby little man (1:11:06, and especially the orchestral interlude at 1:14:00); the song of the exiled to Siberia (1:22:49 – “O, you, road ploughed by chains, / the road to Siberia, sown with bones, / this road has been watered with blood and sweat, / death groans arise from it…”); the purest, most lyrical moment of the opera – Katerina´s words to Sergey as they meet after a day´s march (1:29:12 – “Seryozha, my dearest! At last! I´ve gone the whole day without seeing you, Seryozha! Even the pain in my legs has gone, and the tiredness, and the grief, now you are with me…”). And finally, her final monologue, terrible in its disconnectedness, after Sergey´s betrayal, as for the first time since the opera began she understands what she´d done, and we see the dark chasm yawning before her (1:38:10):

“In the wood, right in a grove, there is a lake,
almost round and very deep
and the water in it is black,
black like my conscience.
And when the wind blows in the wood,
on the lake waves rise up,
huge waves and then it’s frightening,
in autumn there are always waves on the lake
and the water’s black and the waves huge.
Huge, black waves…”

The culprit

Who then wrote the review in the Pravda? And why did it only appear two years after the opera´s premiere – when the opera had already seen more than 170 performances in Moscow and Leningrad (to say nothing about premieres in London, New York, Zurich, Stockholm, Buenos Aires et al)? And what of all the previous reviews in the Soviet press, which were nothing but stellar: “the first classical Soviet opera”, “a great victory of the Soviet music”…?

The archive information points to David Zaslavsky as being the review´s author. Zaslavsky (1879-1965) was a talented yet unscrupulous journalist, who changed political sides whenever it was worth his while. zaA Menshevik during the revolution, he joined forces with the Bolsheviks thereafter, and took part, among others, in the persecutions of the poets Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak (two stories that ended badly: Mandelshtam was exiled to Siberia in 1938, but died of illness before reaching it – even though one did not walk that way anymore, it still remained “sown with bones”. Pasternak died of lung cancer in 1960, two years after the prolonged persecutions in the media and the heavy social pressure made him decline the Nobel Prize for literature).

But the question is, did Zaslavky write the review on his own, or was he acting upon orders from above? Here we enter an area of speculation, but it´s hard not to connect the review´s appearance with Stalin and his entourage visiting the Bolshoi and seeing the opera two days before that, on the 26th of January 1936. Stalin loved opera, frequented the Bolshoi and even had favourites among the singers. But all evidence agrees that he loved melodic, easy to follow tunes, loved the Russian operas of the 19th century – Prince Igor, The Queen of Spades, Ivan Susanin – as well as folk music.

Moreover – he did not tolerate any kind of unbecoming behaviour or attire. Vishnevskaya, the singer, recalls in her book how disgusted Stalin became seeing Tatyana in a light morning gown in the last scene of Tchaikovsky´s Eugene Onegin – a scene, in which according to Pushkin she is “sitting peaked and wan, / alone, with no adornment on;” (trans. C. Johnston).

Seeing her thus unadorned, with Onegin before her, Stalin cried: “how can a woman appear before a man like this?!” And since that day, writes Vishnevskaya, Tatyana always wore a heavy velvet dress in that scene, her hair arranged for an evening ball – and to the devil with Pushkin.

And now Stalin was presented with Lady Macbeth, with its piercing, strident musical language, light years away from Tchaikovsky´s nobility or Borodin´s colourful folk-like melodies – Shostakovich´s music was soaked with passion and lust, full of explicitly sexual scenes. It´s not surprising to discover that Stalin left the theatre before the final act, infuriated.

In juxtaposition to Stalin´s personal tastes, Solomon Volkov, author of Shostakovich and Stalin: the artist and the Tsar (2004), presents a line of political reasoning to explain Stalin´s reaction to the opera. Stalin, writes Volkov, was at the time leading a wide anti-formalistic campaign in all the arts; the Pravda was publishing one anti-formalistic article after the other – against formalism in cinematography (13th of February, 1936), in architecture (February 20th), in painting (March 1st), in the theatre (March 9th). The review of Lady Macbeth becomes in such an analysis a single link of a bigger chain: the regime needed an appropriate negative example in the field of music, and Lady Macbeth fit the bill. From the ethical point of view as well, continues Volkov, the opera did not accord with the line led by the Party at that time – the agenda was strengthening the institute of the Soviet family: obstacles were being put before those who wanted to divorce; abortions were outlawed, and photographs of Stalin with young kids were often published in newspapers. And here came an opera lauding “free love” (or as the critic put it, “a glorification of the merchants’ lust”), in which the divorce problem is solved simply and brutally – by killing the hated husband.

The combination of those two reasons can possibly explain the double-edged nature of the review´s accusations: aesthetic on one side (“a confused stream of sound”), and political on the other (Shostakovich “ignored the demands of Soviet culture”). But whether the hit came from here or from there, after the review was published, the days of Lady Macbeth on the stage of the Bolshoi were numbered – the run was closed down after just three more performances. Within less than a month the composers of Moscow and Leningrad published condemning resolutions, and the opera was struck out of the repertoire of Soviet theatres till 1962, when it was staged again in a second, shortened and edited version, created by Shostakovich in 1955 (this is the version upon which the movie mentioned above was made).

The aftermath

Shostakovich, as opposed to many others in that era, was not arrested, was not exiled, was not executed, his immediate family remained unharmed. In the creative field, we, as observers from the future, can too say that he came out victorious – his next large-scale symphonic work, which was called “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism” (i.e, one which was seen by the regime as Shostakovich´s agreement to compose within the limits set by the Party), was his Fifth Symphony – one of the pinnacles of symphonic composition of the 20th century, and perhaps Shostakovich´s most popular work in concert halls today.

His following relationship with the Soviet government followed the carrot and stick approach – though one must admit that in Shostakovich´s case the number of carrots exceeded the norm – five Stalin prizes, five orders of Lenin and one Lenin prize, Hero of Socialist Labour, order of the October Revolution, USSR State prize and many others. The stick, when it came, was just one but very heavy. In 1948, Shostakovich topped the list of the composers accused of formalism and of distancing themselves from the people. The vast majority of his works were blacklisted, he was fired from the Moscow Conservatory, all his privileges and those of his family were rescinded, and till Stalin´s death in 1953 he was forced to make a living out of writing film music (work which he hated) and a few pro-Party pieces. The public condemnation and the persecutions in the media need not be mentioned – those were self-evident.

sho2The cynics will say – so what, even then he wasn´t arrested, he wasn´t exiled, he wasn´t executed. He survived in a place where millions perished. But it seems to me that there was a price to pay for the ongoing fear for himself and for his family, for the public insults, for the need to constantly lie and pretend, both in his outward appearance and sayings and in his “state” compositions: all of those left their mark in his “real”, sincere music – starting with the Fifth Symphony, that “creative response to justified criticism”, through his Second Trio, his Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, the Eighth Quartet (which, according to his children, he composed in memory of himself); and till his last works – the 14th Symphony (a symphonic cycle of death-related songs), the 15th Quartet (a string of six Adagio movements, including a funeral march and an elegy); the cycle of songs to the Sonnets of Michelangelo, and his very last composition, the Viola and Piano sonata. I think one need not be a student of history of music or even be acquainted with the circumstances of his life to hear the boundless pain in these works, the brokenness and the blazing anger. And at the same time – the freezing, the static blankness of having no choice and no escape. And since Lady Macbeth, despite numerous proclamations regarding his future creative plans, he never wrote another opera.

The music of war: a listening guide to Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, 1st movement (part 2 of 2)

Picking right where the first part ended, let’s go on to the development:

03:14 – above the long held chord quiet activity ensues, full of energy which is held in check for the moment. Believe it or not, but these are the first three notes of our dreamy second subject, played sharply and with each note repeated twice. It’s a two voice affair, with a second voice entering at a dissonant interval just as the first voice finishes at 03:15 (such a device is called ‘stretto’, meaning ‘narrow, tight’ in Italian, and, I’m guessing, related to ‘straits’). This second voice scurries up and down from 03:16 on, and the left hand makes its appearance with two quiet but tense chords at 03:19. This is followed by a quick exchange of repeated notes between the two voices at 03:20-03:23 (one could imagine two mechanical constructions communicating with each other).

This exchange leads directly into another stretto entrance at 03:23, this time higher in pitch and a bit louder (the second stage of what is to be a very long buildup). This time the scurrying up-and-down runs (from 03:25 on) are spread over a bigger area of the keyboard, and are accompanied/accentuated by slaps as they reach their highest points (03:26, 03:29, 03:31) and by the same two quiet but tense chords we had at 03:19 at their lowest points (03:28, 03:30, 03:32). Yet another exchanges of repeated notes takes place 03:32, more complicated this time, as at 03:35 it shifts half a tone higher and goes on for a bit longer (a more complex communication, if you wish). This leads into –

03:38 – the third stage of the buildup. The right hand continues with yet another stretto entrance, but this time it’s just the backdrop to a melody in the middle voice (which makes us suddenly realize we had no proper melody in the development prior to this; I really love the way Prokofiev does it – moving aside what previously was more than enough material to occupy center stage and making it but the accompanying layer to a new voice; it’s as if the focus has shifted and we understand the true proportions of things – or so we think). This melody, heard clearly from 03:39, is a fuller version of our second subject melody – the one which the repeating-notes stretti in the right hand are based upon – and it’s constantly accompanied by a motoric right hand, filling the gaps between the notes. After it’s finished, at 03:43, the right hand plays one more stretto entrance, to which an old acquaintance is suddenly and forcibly added at 03:45 – the main motif of the sonata. Just to sum up the levels of complexity at this point: a harmonic chord in the bass, a melody in the lower middle voice, two voices with repeating notes above it, and at the apex the opening motif of the movement (cool, isn’t it?).

03:46-04:00 – this entire section is a chaotic mess mixture of the various motifs: repeated notes in the middle voice, forcible notes in the bass, two appearances of the stretto motif (03:48, 03:52) and numerous appearances of the opening motif, both in the four-note and the shorter three-note version and also in an expanded five-note version, with the first note repeated one extra time (03:49, 03:51, 03:54, 03:59 for a few examples). All of this over a very big crescendo, which finally leads us to –

04:00-04:10 – and we thought our focus had shifted at 03:38 with the introduction of the melody in the middle voice… The second subject now appears in its full horrible splendor in the right hand, high above the rest of the proceedings and twice as slow (a device called ‘augmentation’), while all around it the rest of the motifs battle among themselves – I find the effect terrifying. You’ll recognize the various motifs by now, but note the augmented main motif at 04:00 and 04:04 (left hand) beside the usual shorter versions which abound. At 04:10 there’s a lull at the melody and the lower voices take over, going first up then down, followed by two quick upward arpeggios at 04:12-04:13 (snarls to me) and a final shriek by the main motif high above, at 04:13.

This leads us to 04:14-04:36 – the biggest climax so far. The full second subject (04:00 had just the first part of it) appear in the middle voice (played by the thumbs of the two hands in unison), gaining even more in weight and presence, while all around them chaos reigns. Note the quick upward runs at 04:15-04:16 and 04:20-04:21, each followed by a crashing chord at 04:16 and 04:22. These chords are marked by Prokofiev col pugno, meaning ‘with the fist’ in Italian, and they are literally to be smashed with your right-hand fist on the keyboard as a cluster of notes (and I find that they startlingly resemble the sound of dropping bombs or shells, especially after the whistle of the runs preceding them). Also worth noting is the barrage of repeating octaves in the left hand (04:24-04:26) hammered out for extra aggression, and the keyboard-crossing upward run at 04:31-04:34, capped with yet another shriek of the opening motif – which then closes the section with one last appearance deep below, at 04:35-04:36.

04:36-05:01 – a heavy-plodding section based on two motifs: the second subject melody appears once again, but this time it’s coupled with the bridge section motif – remember that quietly slithering line from 00:49? Well, it’s the same one at 04:38-04:41 and from 04:46 onward, just much louder, heavier and badder. This is all incredibly aggressive (just listen to the angry twirl at 04:45 or to the thuds at 04:54), and while performing it makes me feel like as if I were playing heavy metal – you really vent all your anger in a place such as this (something we rarely get to do as classical musicians; it’s a lot of fun). It gets even louder toward the end of the section, and then we get to –

05:02-05:11 – a shrieking section, based on the four-note descending motif of the closing section of the exposition (02:26), with bits of the second subject woven in (05:05, 05:08, 05:10). As aggressive as the one before (though it’s all sharp and biting here), there are even two glissandi (quick slides over the keys) at 05:06 and 05:09 for extra effect. There’s an obsessive, repeating quality to those shrieks, as if coming from an animal trapped in a cage and unable to break out.

Things start to calm down (though real calmness is still far away) at 05:12, with three repeats of the four-note descending motif embellished with trills (05:12-05:15), which then continue into a descending chromatic line surrounded by several repeats of the opening motif (05:15-05:20). The chromatic line then takes over, becoming calmer yet and getting accompanied by a softer series of chords (05:21-05:25). But then things explode one last time at 05:26. We hear a new motif, which is one very typical to Prokofiev – the ticking clock. Loud at first, it soon subsides and makes place to several melodic appearances of the opening motif (05:28, 05:33, and more slowly and cautiously at 05:41). Note the change of harmony at 05:38: becoming slightly inquisitive, as if questioning that these horrors could really have just happened. From 05:44 things begin to fall apart – the clock motif becoming fragmented and slowing down. And then, at 05:53 appears our old malicious friend, that last motif of the exposition (02:59), framing the development on both ends – whatever meaning we attribute to it, I find this idea wonderful as a storytelling technique. At 06:00 the right hand joins in, doubling the left, and together they slow down completely by 06:03.

And at 06:05, after two seconds of silence, all of the aggression of the opening is once again unleashed onto our ears – we’ve arrived at the recapitulation. 06:05-06:28 is a full repeat of the first 15 seconds of the movement, with two changes: the more obvious one is that the first sentence (06:05-06:13) is played one octave lower than in the opening, a darker, more condensed sound, which makes the return to the normal pitch at 06:20 seem all the more triumphant (even radiant, in an ugly way). The less obvious change is that at 06:05-06:13 Prokofiev swaps the first two beats in the left hand, the downbeat now being a harsh dissonance, and the second beat becoming a pure consonance. This leads to a skewed feel, as if the marching soldiers were now limping along lopsidedly (though things right themselves at 06:20).

06:29-06:54 corresponds to the Mordor horns section of the exposition (00:25-00:41), but with quite a change of mood. The melody is in the upper voice, and the marching feel is gone completely; the melody is accompanied instead by what was a calmly flowing line in the second subject section (02:02). Melodically this section consists once again of two short sentences (06:29-06:37, 06:42-06:49), but the buffer parts between those two become much more interesting – both sentences grow in volume and end up with an explosive chord (06:37, 06:49; relatives of those bomb-like ones from the development, though not played with the fist this time). After these chords there’s a gradual climb up back to the melody, first hardly discernible, then becoming clearer, as if dust were settling down after an explosion.

06:55-07:14 – this section is based at first on the second subject melody (you’re probably recognizing it by now), with the same flowing line for accompaniment we’ve had in the previous section, but already by 06:59 things start to go sour in the middle voices, and starting from 07:02 Prokofiev abandons his melody completely and embarks instead on one last buildup, towards one last climax. The hands grow more and more apart, as the right hand keeps climbing higher and the left hand keeps crawling down chromatically. Tension steadily rises, there is a slight slowing down in tempo as we get to the extremes of the keyboard (07:11-07:14), and then here it is –

07:15 – the final climax of the work. Prokofiev completely breaks away from the sonata from structure by this point and instead of making the recapitulation a simple repeat of the exposition, he lets it bear what is probably the heaviest, most ponderous moment of the entire movement. Those heavy chords are based on the clock motif from the end of the development (05:26), with bits from the second subject melody thrown in (in its loud and high-pitched version from the development). Things seem to quieten down at 07:21, only to return with full vengeance at 07:28. The sequence is repeated then: a semblance of a calming down at 07:31 (with a haunting, pale specter appearing at 07:34: a ghost-like reminiscence of 05:21), but the war is not to be done away with, and it returns yet again in full force at 07:43, followed by what seems once again to be a calming down (07:45-07:51). You’ll probably doubt its truthfulness by now, and you’ll be right: at the very end of the movement the opening motif returns for one last, triumphant appearance (07:52), and this highly dissonant movement ends with on a highly dissonant chord (07:55), which is left to fade away, unresolved.

*****

Well! That’s it :-). I hope you’ve enjoyed, though perhaps this is not the right word here – but I do hope that this guide managed to make this really complex and sometimes opaque music clearer. And if you’re then able to listen to this movement once again and get some enjoyment from it, then I’ve totally done my job.

I’ll end with a plug – should you like to get the CD, it’s on sale on all Amazon websites (both in a physical and a downloadable copy) among others, as well as on iTunes and other music distribution networks. And it’s not all aggression – though harsh sounds do appear throughout the three sonatas, the movement we’ve just discussed is probably the most dissonant of them all. In some of the others, plenty of softer, even lyrical music is to be found. And taken together these three sonatas have likely not been surpassed in Prokofiev’s piano output in terms of depth, colors, imagination and some incredible writing for the piano, all combined for a very strong effect..

See you next time! BG.

The music of war: a listening guide to Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, 1st movement (part 1 of 2)

Hello everybody!

Today’s post marks a somewhat special occasion, as my new CD has been recently  released worldwide. I recorded the 6th, 7th, and 8th piano sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), which are commonly grouped together as ‘the War Sonatas’, having been composed between 1940 and 1944. To tie-in with the release, I decided to publish a listening guide to the opening movement of the CD – the first movement of the 6th sonata. And to really tie-in with the release, the YouTube clip below comes from the newly released CD (thanks to Orchid Classics for arranging this).

Since we’re once again discussing a sonata form movement (and in rather more depth than in the recent guide to Ravel’s Concerto in G), I thought I’ll do a quick recap of what a sonata form is and how it works before we delve into the music (you can also find an in-depth discussion here). The sonata form is a musical mold or a blueprint which could be used to construct a musical movement of almost any length – it’s highly flexible and modular, while at the same time being structured enough to provide the skeleton for even the longest movements. It’s also one of the most popular and longest-enduring musical forms with hundreds of works ranging from the mid-18th century to our days. The basic division of a sonata form movement is into three parts:

  • Exposition
  • Development
  • Recapitulation (often shortened to recap)

In the exposition the main themes/subjects/motifs are presented (more on it in a second), they are then developed, combined and clashed in the development, and reprised in the recapitulation, which is often a complete repeat of the exposition. The exposition itself is normally divided into four sections:

  • The first subject section (subject being just another word for a musical theme)
  • A connection section (a.k.a. a bridge or a transition, which leads into ->)
  • The second subject section
  • A closing section (formally called the ‘codetta’, meaning ‘little coda’ – which is Italian for tail)

The first and second subjects are the defining melodic elements of the movement (those are usually the tunes one could sing – though they’re not always singable, as we’ll see), and since some point in the 19th century, it became common practice to have two contrasting subjects in your movement – so if the first was energetic and quick, the second would be lyrical and slow (e.g.). The other two sections need not present new melodic material (though they may), and their function is more of a structural one – connecting, moving from one key to another, etc. Once again, please refer to the Mozart post linked above if you’d like a more thorough explanation.

The development is a free-form section, without rules – it’s quite often the least stable area of the sonata form movement: the subjects are combined and juxtaposed, buildups are built up, big climaxes are reached – exciting stuff. The recap would normally contain the same sections as the exposition, and would sometimes be followed by a coda – a closing section.

So, as you see, it’s a very organized way of writing music. But there’s also much freedom to be had – sections can be as short or as long as the composer wants them to, they can be expanded to include more material, or even be done away with completely. This is all rather theoretical at the moment, but will hopefully become clearer as we progress with the music. And so, without further ado, here’s the recording:

00:02 – now how’s that for a melody to sing? This is angular, aggressive, angry, persistent – and basically not a melody at all. It’s a sharply defined rhythmic motif – one longer note, followed by three quick descending ones, and immediately repeated, with the first longer note shortened (00:02-00:04); this group of eight notes (they are actually sixteen, as each note is doubled by an interval, like two voices moving in parallel paths) is repeated in full (00:05-00:07), and then repeated once again, shortened even more and with an extra helping of the three descending notes (00:07-00:08); and to end the sentence, we have a new four-note rising motif, with a snappy dotted rhythm (00:08-00:10), like a series of angrily barked words.

I would like to dwell on this short sentence some more, as it’s fascinating to see how much can occur in such a small stretch of time, and on how many different levels. (For me it’s one of the greatest hallmarks of classical music – things are happening all the time, no second is wasted, and the perception of time is often stretched to accommodate the amount of stuff packed into every bar.) We’ve spoken about the melody, but what happens in the left hand?

(note: this paragraph and the next are slightly more complicated and technical, so feel completely free to skip them.) You have probably noticed that the the music resembles a march more than anything else (I imagine endless lines of blank-eyed soldiers, marching past or towards you) – but what a weird march it is! You would normally expect a march to have a very steady, constant beat, to help with the marching. But not here – the third beat out of every four is empty, missing, giving us instead of a regular ‘one-two-three-four’ an oddly syncopated ‘one-two-…..-four. And not just in the left hand, but in the right hand as well, as the third beat falls on the shortened long note of the main motif – which is shortened precisely to leave the third downbeat empty (I mean the very beginning of 00:04 and 00:06 – there’s just an emptiness there, no right hand, no left hand – as if the soldiers all stopped on the Right! and froze on one leg for a beat before continuing to Left! Could be quite scary, if you imagine it). Later, in 00:07-00:08, the left hand finally plays all four beats, but instead of sounding normal as it should, it now sounds shortened, condensed (as the empty beat has been dispensed with) – this to coincide with the shortening of the motif in the right hand. 00:08-00:10 is nothing special, with the left hand steadily accompanying the right. (But do notice the abrupt ending in 00:10 – in the beginning we first had ‘one-two-…..-four’ for two bars, then one bar of ‘one-two-three-four’, and then, at 00:10, it’s suddenly ‘one-two-three!’, like a cut-off, categorical statement – very effective. And it’s quite a variety of rhythmical configurations for such a short sentence.)

Lastly I’d like to talk about the harmony – the very first chord we hear in 00:02 is a pure major triad – a clean, perfectly consonant sound. But immediately thereafter, at 00:03, we get the harshest dissonant one could create from four notes (that’s how many we’ve got there), which is further exacerbated by Prokofiev ‘freezing’ on that harmony (the empty third beat) – this serves as a virtual accent, as there’s nothing after that chord, letting us continue hearing it in our ears. Prokofiev also repeats the same harmony on the fourth beat (00:04), so on balance our first bars are one fourth pure consonance to three fourths harsh dissonance – a sweet mix, isn’t it? The first chord of the closing four-note motif (00:08) is a hard dissonance as well, though the very last chord (00:10) is a clean one – consonances make better ‘full-stop’ chords, or, as in this case, ‘semicolon’ chords – as we’re not nearly done yet.

If you listen to this first sentence again, you can now probably hear and feel how those elements – the melody, the rhythm and the harmony – combine to create the militant, triumphant mood (triumphant in an ugly way). Moreover, the sentence is perfectly balanced – first, two identical full bars, each one with a skipped beat in the left hand and the main motif in the right hand played twice per bar, once in full, once in a rhythmically shortened version. This is followed by a general condensing of the material (no skipped beats in the left hand, only the shortened version of the motif in the right hand), the tension is building up, and finally the snappy four-notes motif finishes things off for the moment – and we’re just 8 seconds in.

And here I’d like to add that for me in no other movement of these three sonatas – ten movements altogether – are the horrors of war as blatantly apparent as here. There’s nothing subtle here, nothing is hinted – you’re staring war in the face, and it’s ugly.

Let’s go on (finally). 00:10-00:17 – We have some new material. This is a kind of an appendix to the first sentence, not a new one. 00:10-00:12 gives us a rowdy motif (possibly with an element of laughter to it – of the mocking, malicious kind) which is answered at 00:12-00:14 by a booming, dissonant fanfare in a lower region of the keyboard (rhythmically, it’s ‘one-two-three!’, like at 00:10 – once again, a semicolon chord). And then, in 00:14-00:17 there is a sweeping upward passage in the right hand, accompanied by dotted rhythms in the left hand (dotted rhythms are – well, it’s easier to show: this is what they are, 05:55-06:03. They are called so because of the way they are notated in a musical score. Here’s an example, the first dot is circled in red):

Dynamically, the run starts out somewhat softer with an immediate crescendo afterwards (crescendo is the musical term for the volume getting louder), there’s another tension buildup, and it gets released into –

00:17-00:25 – a full repeat of the opening phrase (00:02-00:10), sounding even more triumphant then before. The only difference is the ending, at 00:23-00:25 – instead of the snappy four-notes motif from 00:09-00:10, we get the booming fanfare one from 00:12-00:14 (musical interchangeability :-)) – and this time it serves as a full-stop, bringing the entire section to a close. And yet, at the very last moment, the bass line in the left hand slides down – that single note between 00:25 and 00:26 – and brings us to the next section –

00:25-00:41. If you have been keeping the sonata form structure in mind, you might be wondering if this is the bridge – the connecting section between the first and the second subject. The truthful answer is that one cannot know for sure at this point – we’ll have to wait and see what happens afterwards: if this brings us to the second subject, then yes, if it brings us somewhere else, then no. As it is, this section is based on just two motifs – first, the descending three-note motif which we encountered right at the beginning of the movement (without the first long note); but whereas before it has been the melody (sort of), now it has become the accompaniment to the other line – a series of long, loud notes, sustained in the middle of the keyboard, while the three-note motif encompasses them from above and from below like snarls and shrieks. The effect is absolutely barbaric – a terrible force is on the march to the sound of horns (I immediately think about the armies of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings; and realizing that Prokofiev meant no imaginary creatures, but rather some very real human beings, makes it all the more chilling).

Melodically the sentence is divided into two short parts, 00:25-00:30 and 00:32-00:36, with the areas between and after serving as buffer or filler – no melodic notes there, just repetitions of our descending three-note motif. And then, after one last angry snarl in the basses at 00:38, we get the same upward run as at 00:14, complete with the dotted notes in the left hand. And, like at 00:18, it once again brings us to a full repeat of the opening phrase (00:41-00:48), and we can now know for sure that those barbaric horns at 00:25 were not the bridge section, but rather the expansion of the first subject section. This is a prime example of the flexibility of the sonata form – Prokofiev has constructed a complicated, multi-segmented section with quite a bit of different material, and yet, it’s all snugly encapsulated inside a clearly delineated structural block. Nice! But let’s move on.

00:49-01:21 – our bridge section. In the beginning (00:49-00:56) we’ve got a creeping, slithering chromatic line (chromatic means covering all the tones and semi-tones on the piano; basically advancing in the smallest increments possible from point A to point B. Chromatic scales got a distinct sound, and among other things they’re very good for crawling lines such as this). The two hands alternate note by note, and the melody is just in the thumbs of both hands, the other fingers providing dampened harmonic chords. The last four notes of the line get repeated three times (00:53-00:56), each time a bit louder (with a hint of a growing menace), then the phrase is repeated again at a higher pitch (00:56-01:00), this time ending with a bigger crescendo and even a tiny bit of triumph as the hands split and separate from each other (01:00-01:02). Our chromatic line is then repeated one last time, higher and louder still (01:02-01:05) and after a single octave in the bass (01:06), we get to the climax of this section: we’re showered with a cascade of highly dissonant descending chords (01:06-01:12) – like a carillon gone mad. There’s no melody to speak of, just harsh intervals. The line slows and quietens down gradually (01:11 onward), coming to a near-standstill at 01:16-01:20.

And then at 01:22, above the held interval in the bass, the second subject appears – a distant melody, sad and forlorn and beautiful, played by both hands in unison. I cannot but think of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Pity of war’ in this place – for me this is the musical embodiment of that idea. The unison line splits into three voices at 01:30, the middle voice adding a counterpoint to the upper voice melody and the bass line appearing down below, reminding us that all is not well. Then at 01:38, the first half of our melody is repeated with more presence in the middle voice, the upper voice accompanying it with a few separated notes, this half-line ending uncertainly at 01:45-01:47.

At 01:47-02:02 the full line is repeated with several variations, in the same three-voice configuration we had at 01:30. The middle voice is becoming more prominent (note the long up-and-down line at  01:48-01:54) and there’s an unexpected dotted-rhythm interplay between it and the upper voice at 01:56-01:58, bringing a note of urgency and nervousness into the previously calm line. This is joined by the lower voice with a short but noticeable upward arpeggio (broken chord) at 01:59.

At 02:02 a new, calmly flowing line appears, passing into the lower voice at 02:06, as the right hand plays three prominent bell-like notes (02:06, 02:08, 02:10). Immediately after the third note our main melody re-appears above, making the flowing line below its accompaniment. A small additional quirkiness is in the fact that the melody is offset by one note, entering as it were just a bit too late, and making it ever-so-slightly out of sync with the bass, and adding to the flow (the two hands are then re-synced at 02:13).

02:17 – calmness is over. This is the closing section to the exposition; a quick upward line made of sharp notes alternated between the two hands snaps us out of the slightly dreamy mood that preceded it. This is further emphasized by the relative harshness of 02:20-02:24, which contains a preparation of what is to come – in its middle voice we can hear a line of four descending notes which will serve as the backbone of the forthcoming climax. The quick upward line is repeated at 02:26-02:27, followed by a short buildup at 02:27-02:31 which contains the same four-note motif, repeated twice (02:27-02:29, 02:29-02:31). And finally things erupt in an explosive manner at 02:31. Something bad is upon us, and the outer chords sound the alarm, like low and high heavy bells, while the middle voice hammers out incessantly the descending four-note motif. 02:38-02:41 – still more harshness and clamor, the four-note motif especially insisting at 02:42-02:45, where it’s isolated and for all to hear. Things slow down at 02:45, as if the motor propelling the four-note motif had run out of fuel, and the section ends with a few slow notes in the bass at 02:51-02:55.

But then Prokofiev adds one final touch before moving on to the development. Just as things seem to have calmed down, a dark, somewhat scary motif of repeated notes appears in the bass at 02:59 (not to detract from the seriousness of the music, I’m reminded a bit of a Hollywood technique – showing us one last giant ant queen or man-eating locust creeping out of the dark, just as we thought they were all annihilated. Though of course the place we’re at in the sonata form structure – just before the beginning of the development – suggests in itself that the big events are yet to come. And however we look at it, it’s a very effective and highly atmospheric place). At 03:05 the single voice splits into two, with quite a scary effect as the lowest voice enters at a higher volume, before gradually slowing and dying away through several repeats of a three-note ascending chromatic motif. At 03:09 this motif is repeated one last time, slowly, in the middle of the keyboard, and now we’re truly ready for the development.

(I’ve split the post in two due to its length; the second part follows right away.)

A Frenchman in New York: a listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 3 of 3)

Hello everybody!

Following upon the previous post here’s the third and final part of this listening guide. We’ve got one short movement left, about 4 minutes of fast, fun music. This is the most straightforward movement of the three in terms of composition, which is counterbalanced by a brilliant and imaginative orchestration and such a dose of energy, virtuosity and overall excitement as to make the most ardent adherent of the ‘classical music is boring’ view to swallow their words.

So, here’s the movement, in Martha Argerich’s interpretation once again (she’s just unbeatable):

00:09 – We start with a series of four loud chords played by the brass (horns, trumpet and trombone) with a bit of help from the bassoons and the lower string, all above a trill on the snare drum – that’s what is responsible for that constant noise. Those chords are a declaration of intent: remember, we’ve just come out of the magical world of the second movement, and Ravel wants us to snap out of it, immediately. So we’re forcible told: no more melancholy, no soft colors, no starry nights, it’s all bright sunlight from now on, so come and join the fun (and as we’ll see, this section will become a recurrent motif throughout the movement). These chords are followed by a thump on the bass drum for good measure (at 00:11), and the piano is ushered in.

00:12-00:20 – well, folks, that’s what we get for a melody! There is a line there, actually, which one could sing (like, four times slower), but it’s so fast as to become just a fantastical swirl of notes which are hardly discernible to the listener. The pianist alternates the hands note after note, so that the line is evenly split between the two hands. More than that, the melody itself is just in the thumbs of each hand, while the outer fingers double it with various intervals. The resulting sound is vaguely oriental (say, at 00:16-00:18), and if you listen to this section a few times you’ll be able to feel the shape of the line – the places where it goes up, or down again, and then leads to the final short buildup (00:15-00:18) and the cadence (00:19-00:20). The orchestra accompanies with pizzicati on the strings (you might remember, that’s the way of playing whereby the players pluck the strings), which add a bit of harmony and a rhythmic frame.

00:20-00:31 – the piano continues with more of the same, but now it’s just a backdrop to the utter funkiness that goes on in the orchestra. First the shrill E-flat clarinet (00:20) and later the piccolo (00:26) play something that sounds completely out of tune with what everybody else is playing – and it is! Even on its own their melody would sound eccentric and/or slightly crazy, but being played, as it is, in a different key, the effect is just doubled. I don’t know how to characterize the stuff they are playing – it’s not really jazzy and not really French, and not quite Klezmer-like – a mixture of everything and a bit more, to give an overall impression that somewhere, someone has gone bananas (in a jolly way).

The trombone gives a connecting pwwwam between the E-flat clarinet and the piccolo (00:24-00:25), and the piccolo is followed by a buildup made by the trombone (00:28), horn (00:30) and trumpet (00:31), who together with the piano bring us to the climax of this section – which is a full repeat of the opening chords: brass, snare drum, bass drum and all (00:31-00:34).

00:34-00:48 – our bridge section melody (if we follow the sonata form structure), played first by the piano (00:34-00:40) and then bravely, but at first not really audibly plucked by the strings, while the piano is hammering away barrages of repeating notes (00:40-00:48). The melody itself is a pseudo-serious one, even with a small pretense to pompousness, which traits are belied by the springing syncopated accents strewn all over the place (but do note the two seconds of a more hesitant mood at 00:37-00:38 – probably the only touch of melancholy in this movement, and an invention of Martha :-), which I personally like quite a lot).

00:49-01:04 – a section based on the main theme of the movement. First, there is a dialogue between the woodwinds and the piano, both aided by plucks – the woodwinds by the harp, the piano by pizzicati in the strings. After two blocks of five bars (00:49-00:52 – piccolo+flute and piano, 00:52-00:56 – two different clarinets and piano), the piano takes over and continues the line on its own, gradually climbing up both in pitch and in volume. The horn adds its sound at 00:59, and jointly they reach yet another block of four chords, similar rhythmically to the opening ones (though offset by one beat <– never mind that, it’s technical stuff, I just didn’t want to leave a half-correct statement in the text), but with a different harmony this time (as we got to a different key by now), and orchestrated differently as well – a generally lighter, higher-pitched sound; the noisy trill on the snare drum is replaced by a silvery trill on the triangle, and the thump on the bass drum is replaced by a crack of the whip (01:04).

01:04-01:15 – the orchestra is playing our second subject motif; once again, not a proper melody but rather a collection of military fanfares alternating between the horns and the trumpet, with the rest of the orchestra helping a bit (you’ll notice the snare drum at 01:06-01:07, adding to the military feel; also note how the bit at 01:09-01:11 has more of a French flavor). At 01:12 the horns’ sound gets a bit softer and is followed by a downward slide played by the trombone – a distinctly jazzy sound, which, like a strong spice, is able to change the mood instantly. It is followed by the same slide played twice as slowly (a device known as ‘augmentation’) by the clarinet (01:13-01:15). The piano then enters with upward arpeggios (01:15-01:16), bringing us back to the initial mood of the section.

01:16-01:32 – a repeat of the previous section with slight variations, and with the fanfares played now by the piano, accompanied by the other orchestral instruments in various combinations. The downward slide, once we get to 01:27, is played by repeated notes on the piano (once again with a dose of softer, dreamier harmony in the orchestra), and the section is once again ended by upward arpeggios on the piano (01:30-01:31), they, too, becoming softer this time.

01:32-01:51 – a two-part sequence, each part consisting of three smaller sections:

  • 01:32, 01:42 – quick downward runs in the piano, accompanied by steady, march-like beats in the orchestra. (As for those runs, let me introduce a new term here: they are chromatic. A chromatic scale is one that includes every single note on the piano – all of the whites and all of the blacks. As such it doesn’t have a key – you can start at any place and end at any place, and it will still sound the same [like what you hear at 01:32; for an upward chromatic scale, check out 03:42-03:47]. The word is derived from Chroma, meaning ‘color’ in Greek, as the chromatic notes were understood to add color to the normal, blander scale. Of course one could play chromatic scales on any instrument, it’s just easier to explain on the piano, as the twelve semi-tones of the scale correspond exactly to the twelve keys there are within each octave of the piano – here’s a picture of the keyboard for easier visualization, just count every key from any one ‘A’ to the one above it (don’t forget the blacks!):
  • 01:36, 01:45 – upward arpeggios on the piano, accompanied by the same beating pulse in the orchestra;
  • 01:39, 01:48 – an upward scale (not a chromatic one) in the strings, while the piano plays our recurrent motif of four chords + low thump, taken from the opening.

01:52-02:01 – the closing section of the exposition. My teacher once wrote a comment in one my scores: ‘Shostakovich-Mickey Mouse’. Well, if this isn’t ‘Ravel-Mickey Mouse’, I don’t know what is. :-) Very quick passage-work in the right hand, accompanied by ‘um-pah, um-pah’ in the left hand – a completely cartoonish place, especially if played at such a breakneck speed as Martha does. Structurally, we’ve got once again a two-part sequence (01:51-01:54, 01:54-01:56), followed by a chromatic buildup aided by the orchestra (inaudible in this recording, except for the trill on the cymbals at 01:58-01:59). At the end of this buildup there’s a loud and bright chord from the orchestra (01:59), and then everything plummets down (01:59-02:01), and we’re done with the exposition. (And we’re halfway through!)

02:01-02:46 – the development. Largely divided into two sections, each with a subdivision. The first section is 02:01-02:22. It begins with a low murmur in the celli (02:01-02:03), whereupon the bassoons enter and play the entire main ‘melody’ of the movement. I’m not a bassoon player, but somehow, looking at them, I get a feeling this is a hard place :-) (and do give a short listen to this – it’s even faster). Since we’re in the development, some combination or clash of various motifs is due, and we get it: at 02:07, the harp enters doubled by the celli, playing the motif from the bridge section; and at 02:11 we hear a quiet fanfare played by the horn – a short reminder of the second subject section.

The piano enters at 02:13, marking the second part of our first section (of the development) – the piano also plays the melody in full, accompanied by runs by the (poor?) bassoonists. The harp and celli once again add their counterpoint (02:15), and the horns with the fanfare (two of them this time) enter around 02:18, though they’re only audible at 02:20 or thereabouts.

02:22-02:46 – the second large section of the development. The piano will only play simple runs throughout this section, accompanying the orchestra, so we’ll leave it for now – the orchestra is where the interesting stuff happens. Structurally, there are five sections here, each a bit higher in pitch and volume than the one before, like steps one climbs in order to advance. The entry points are 02:22, 02:28, 02:34, 02:40, 02:43, with the last two being twice as short as the first three – as usual, getting impatient towards the end, which helps increase the tension and make the point of arrival (the recapitulation at 02:46) feel more satisfying.

From the motivic point of view, these five short sections bring together almost every bit of melodic material we had in the movement – the bridge section theme, the fanfares (two different motifs taken from there), and of course the main melody, running underneath it all (Mickey Mouse is absent – that one is a pure piano piece). It would be too cumbersome to list every single entry, and part of the fun is in their slightly chaotic juxtaposition, but here are a few to note: 02:23 – clarinet, bridge section, 02:26 – horns, second subject fanfare, 02:28 – trumpet, another bit from the second subject (the French flavor bit), 02:34 – same motif played by the shrill E-flat clarinet, 02:37 – harp and piccolo adding yet another layer of the bridge section motif, and it’s a free-for-all from there.

02:46 – hah, we’ve arrived. It’s the recapitulation, a repeat of almost all the sections we’ve had in the exposition, some of them in full, some in a shortened version, all of them with slight variations. The drive is almost incessant from here, with barely a moment of relief, so in some ways the entire recapitulation is a huge buildup towards the end of the movement (and the entire concerto with it).

02:46-02:58 – the main motif section, taken from the funky part. The motif itself is played by the strings, while the piano takes over the funkiness, once again in a totally unrelated key (though I feel this place is more effective in the exposition; the E-flat clarinet just seems to be the right instrument for the job). 02:54-02:58 – a chromatic climb in the piano (again, totally unrelated to what the orchestra is playing), leading towards

02:59-03:11 – the bridge section motif, played in broken chords by the piano and doubled by the woodwinds; quite a change of mood in comparison to the near-stateliness of 00:34! (I’ve got a sense of a quick clock ticking in the background here). There’s another climb at 03:08 (not a chromatic one), a cadence of three happy chords (03:10-03:11) and we get into

03:11-03:19 – the second subject section, played by the piano alternating with the trumpet (the snare drum keeping it company). All of the woodwinds join in at 03:18, and then suddenly there’s a respite from the relentless drive at 03:20 – it’s a variation on the jazzy downward slide bit we had at 01:12. A two-part sequence – a downward run on the piano followed by the chromatic downward slide played by the clarinet + some repeated notes on the piano (03:20-03:24); then once again a downward run on the piano, followed by a more energetic slide played by the trombone + more repeated notes on the piano (03:24-03:29). Then there’s a short upward run in the woodwinds (03:29), and we arrive at

03:29-03:40 – our Ravel-Mickey Mouse section. As quirky and cartoonish as it was in the exposition, and here it even gets an expanded ending, as the chromatic climb is twice as long (03:35-03:37, and then four bars more: 03:38-03:40). A trill on the cymbal once again accompanies the last stages of the climb (03:39-03:40).

03:40 – the orchestra play the beginning of the bridge section motif one last time, and then there’s a keyboard-spanning chromatic scale on the piano (03:42-03:47), doubled by the woodwinds: first the bassoons, then the clarinets and finally the flute and piccolo – everybody rushing up; a really effective place.

03:48 – a final buildup, starting with the piano on its own, but it’s soon joined by the woodwinds, and then by the rest of the orchestra – there’s a big crescendo (increase of volume), tension is rising, and, finally, at 03:53, the movement ends with one last, rejoicing repeat of the opening chords, the piano adding its lowest notes to the the final thump of the bass drum.

****

Well, that’s it! We’ve done it, quite a journey! Hope you’ve enjoyed, and I’ll see you at some point next month. Cheers for now. BG

A Frenchman in New York: a listening guide to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (part 2 of 3)

Hello! Following upon yesterday’s post, let’s continue with the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

Remember I said (in secret) that the outer movements were not terribly difficult to play? Well, two things – I evaluated that saying today, and found I was in disagreement with myself, or rather that it was still too early for me to make that statement – one should really perform the piece in a concert at least once to be able to say such a thing truthfully. The second thing is, however we judge the difficulty of the first and third movement, the second movement is a first-rate pianistic and musical challenge. It’s easily the best known movement of the concerto, and possibly one of the best known musical works by Ravel – it’s easy to understand why, as the music is of such beauty, nobility and expressiveness – but it also requires a masterful hand (better two) to unlock its full potential.

The second movement might seem to be out of place in this concerto – there’s no trace of jazz here, no exotic motifs, not a shred of a connection, whether in melody or mood, between it and the outer movements – and yet I feel that the three movements not only complement but enhance each other, together creating a kind of a total, highly satisfying work (a bit like the second concerto by Shostakovich – which I will cover at some point – and there’s more resemblance between the two than we could suppose just by looking at the two names; but I’ll leave it for later).

So, without further ado, here it is (I chose a different version by Martha Argerich, which in my opinion is the best currently on YouTube):

The piano starts at 09:06 with two bars of accompaniment in the left hand, above which the melody appears at 09:11. We don’t suspect it yet but this simple left hand accompaniment – one-two-three, one-two-three, like a slow waltz – will stay with us for the entire movement, never changing its flow once – and that’s for above 9 minutes! I can’t think of any other movement or piece where the accompaniment does that (might be worth checking).

The melody, when it appears, is a single voice, one-note-at-a-time one, but before we discuss it further, you might notice something strange – it sounds as if it were played at a different time signature than the left hand. This requires more explanation – compare, for example with this: the melody is in total agreement with the bass line – every downbeat coincides, which is the way music is normally written. But something is awry with our waltz (hm, I’m not actually sure this is a waltz – far too slow – so please take this word with a grain of salt) – the first note of the right hand coincides with the ‘one’ of the ‘one-two-three’ in the left hand – everything fine till here – but then, the next note comes on the ‘three’, followed by three beats of silence – and then, when the right hand line starts moving again at 09:16, it’s one melody note per two accompaniment notes:

one  ——-   two  ———  three——-
one – two – three – one – two – three

… and the simple explanation for this is that the left hand is not playing ‘one-two-three-one-two-three’ as we were thinking but rather ‘one-two-three-four-five-six’, above which the right hand is playing the ‘one-two-three’ – Ravel plays a trick on us, leading us to believe that the opening is two bars in the left hand, whereas it’s actually just one – just a very slow one. But this lack of agreement between the two hands – the bar of the right hand is divided into three, the bar of the left hand into two (which are further divided into three each – but still, there are two groups per bar) – is one of the basic characteristics of this movement. It is a source of much harmonic tension (the left hand might change the harmony in the middle of the bar, on its second ‘one’, at which point the right hand still hasn’t moved from its ‘two’), but also a generator of flow – just imagine has static it would be in such a slow tempo if everything was just ‘one-two-three’ in both hands.

Hm, this is very technical stuff, so let’s emerge from it and return to the music. The only information you may want to retain from this is that each hand occupies its own world, with its own separate time flow; like two layers which sometimes coincide, sometimes not.

There is not much I can write till 11:57 – it’s all one melody in the right hand, and a single type of accompaniment in the left. And herein the great challenge lies – within this sparsity of material, constant interest must be generated by the pianist by squeezing every ounce of interpretative potential from both hands. And if squeezing sounds bad, well, yes, it should also be done in the most natural and inconspicous way – so that we don’t think ‘oh, man, when is it going to end already, why isn’t the orchestra playing?’ but instead lose ourselves in that slow flow.

This challenge is further compounded by the fact that the piano isn’t naturally suited to very slowly flowing melodies of this kind. There are large gaps in time between many of the notes, and what’s the pianist to do? A singer, a string player, a woodwind player – they would all have the ability to influence the sound after it was produced. You can check that easily – sing a single note; you’ll see right away that you are able make it louder, make it quieter, open you mouth, close your mouth, all without changing the pitch – there’s much you can do, and you could use all these devices if needed, to keep the listeners’ interest in such a melody. But on a piano, once a note is struck there’s absolutely nothing you can do – you can hold it or release it, that’s it. (You could also modify the volume of the left hand during the long notes in the right – if the left hand is quieter, those held notes in the right will be more audible. On the other hand, trying to do a vibrato on the key, like a string player would, is, well, just for show – once the hummer has struck the strings, there’s no physical connection between them till you release the key and strike it once again.) All of which makes the sound production skills of the performer all the more important – they must be able to draw out the colors and nuances of each note right away, not being able to rely on later changes while the note is sounding.

A few small points of interest:

  • generally throughout the section – notice how Martha’s two hands often do not play together; normally it’s a bad habit and to be avoided, but in this case it helps separate the melody from the accompaniment (free melody / constant and steady accompaniment), and also increase the number of audible notes (as two notes struck not-together will sound like two notes rather than one interval), perceptually generating more material.
  • 09:22 – a beautiful change of color and dynamics
  • 10:37 – the change to minor. Up to that point it was basically one very long musical sentence, albeit divided into smaller phrases. Those phrases are all of different and irregular length, the regular being 2+2 = 4 bars, 4+4 = 8, and 8+8 = 16. Here I’d say we had 4+3+3+4+3 = 17 (a prime!). Not something you would notice while listening, but I believe that this too helps deprive the music of a static, symmetrical feel, which would be ruinous in such a slow tempo. As it is, the melody just seems to flow naturally, uninterrupted, seemingly without end and without desiring to reach any specific point. Incredibly beautiful, but as I said, very challenging for the soloist, who needs to hold his or her musical breath for very long stretches, and do so effortlessly.
  • 10:58 – a sudden shift in dynamics, and the melody descends quite a bit – the chest voice of a singer, as it were. This is the beginning of the build-up towards the climax of our melody (a long way to go still, so don’t hold your breath)
  • 11:32 and here it is, the climax. Not much, really (though some pianists make more of a show out of it), but this is the highest note this melody reaches, and the loudest dynamic too. From here on it will subside. (Interestingly, the notion that the highest note should only appear once, at the climax of the melody, is a very old one, and goes back to the vocal writing of the 16th century, where it was very strictly observed – together with hundreds of other rules [studying it is a full academic course – 16th century counterpoint]).
  • 11:54 – it seems, seems as if we finally got to a cadence (the harmony is right, and the trill too) and the line will end. But Ravel has other plans in store – at 11:56 the orchestra comes in most beautifully, with a soft, warm chord in the strings and high above it – the flute. And then – a subtle change of harmony at 11:58, the violins play just a single half a tone lower (but it’s a tangible change – try to catch it, it’s a cool moment), and he has successfully evaded the cadence and continues with the line.

12:00-12:56 – the last section of the melody. The piano now only plays the accompaniment, the strings envelope it softly, and the melody passes to the woodwinds: first the flute, then at 12:09 the oboe, at 12:15 the clarinet, and from 12:31 the flute again (its entrance overlapping with the last notes of the clarinet). It soars up, descends, and then – finally – we get our cadence at 12:47-12:54. And what a beautiful one it is – for three reasons: a) it’s finally arrived, so simply because of a sense of deserved completion. b) the leading note – the penultimate note of the line, at 12:51, is half a tone lower than is should be, giving the ending a very special color and sound (the succinctly correct adjective is ‘modal’, but it’s a dangerous succinctness, as a discussion of modal music would take us into such technical depths as we may not emerge from, so I won’t use it) and c) – when the final chord finally arrives at 12:53 it’s a major key chord, and such a combination (minor key beforehand, lowered leading tone and a major key resolution) is a sure recipe for a sense of wonder, and Ravel uses it here masterly. It’s one of my favorite moments of the movement.

First section is over! Four minutes, one melody.

12:57 – the middle section begins. The melody returns to the piano, and it gains a bit more of a flow, aided by a syncopated left hand (if you think of our usual ‘one-two-three’ being ‘low-high-high’ in terms of pitch, now we have ‘low-high-high-low-low-high’) which is doubled by the bassoon for extra emphasis. It’s a two part sequence (12:57-13:14 and then the same phrase repeated a tone lower at 13:15-13:33 with a small variation towards end, at 13:28-13:32). You might notice that the piano is not alone – beside the bassoon who doubles the lowest line of the left hand, there is a counterpoint to the right hand melody – the cor anglais at 12:57 and another bassoon at 13:15

13:33-13:55 – a closing phrase in the piano, accompanied by the strings. At 13:35-13:40 there is yet another variation of the left hand – “low-high-high-low-high-low”, coinciding with the change of harmony and the shift into major, in which the phrase ends, and the section with it.

13:55:14:35 – a variation on the previous section (two part sequence + closing phrase). The two part sequence undergoes quite a change – we have figurations in the right hand, and creeping ascending chords in the orchestra – first bassoons and horns (13:55) then the rest of the woodwinds (14:00) and repeated (14:05 and 14:10 respectively). At 14:15 the closing phrase is repeated, and it’s more recognizable – the melody is played by the violins and it’s nearly the same, with just a change of rhythm in the first bar (the piano at 13:33 had four and a half bars for the phrase, the violin at 14:15 have just four, so the first bar gets condensed – it’s not terribly important, but you can probably hear it if you compare the two places directly). And once again we end in a major key.

14:36 – the beginning of a build-up towards the climax of the movement. Ravel uses the right hand figurations from 13:55 as well as the ascending chords in the orchestra and builds sequences upon sequences of those, each time a bit higher in pitch and in volume. The length of the figuration groups gradually shortens – first it’s two groups of three beats (14:37 and 14:41), then two groups of two beats (14:46 and 14:49) and then, from 14:53 it’s just one-beat long groups – quite a common device for increasing tension and transmitting a feeling of impatience. This also clashes with the left hand rhythm which steadily continues with its ‘one-two-three’ – but we’re used to those clashes by now :-)

15:00 – nearly there, the piano plays very quick figurations, with an extra note between each of one the previous six (so 12-note groups; you can see them at 15:01 – well, a blur of fingers, basically; but it’s not a difficult place at all, just effectively written) – and 15:04 is the big chord, with the entire orchestra joining in for a few moments. It all quickly subsides though, and the piano at 15:10-15:15 leads us back to calm waters.

15:15-17:27 – the recapitulation. The full melody is now played by the cor anglais (English horn) – remember it from yesterday? ‘haunting and beautiful’ I said, and I stand by these words. I really love its sound (the next entry of the Youtube Person’s Guide to the Orchestra will cover it and the Oboe d’amore). The right hand of the piano plays a beautiful counterpoint, loosely based upon the figurations from the middle section, but with many variations and scales woven in. The strings add warmth, and the left hand of the piano continues its inexhaustible beat. The right hand at times becomes nearly melodic (15:27, 15:37, 15:50, 16:45, 16:54, 17:05) and at other times is just a shimmering companion to the main melody – it’s all utterly beautiful (I keep repeating that, I know, but I mean, it is, isn’t it?). And then at 17:20 appears the trill which signified that fake cadence at 11:54, but this time it’s not a fake – the piano rises up and up and then, with a big sigh of satisfaction we are there –

17:27 – the most magical moment of all, for me. This resolution into the major key, the right hand playing in the stratosphere together with a quiet chord from muted brass (horns and trumpet) is that sudden shaft of moonlight I spoke about yesterday. The right hand descends slowly, while in the orchestra the flute enters at 17:33 (what a difference in sound in comparison with the cor anglais! It’s all lightness and air) and soars up. It then descends, passing the melody to the oboe at 17:47 and back to the cor anglais at 17:50, which together with the piano slowly brings the phrase to a close.

18:04 – the ending. The trill is now in the right hand (you know what the left hand is playing, I don’t need to tell you), while the strings play slowly moving chords (note the extraneous note at 18:12 – extraneous to the harmony; just an extra bit of color – followed by a tiny bit of counterpoint in the left hand [till 18:20]). In the penultimate bar (18:29) the left hand finally slows its beat and play just one long ‘one  –   two  –  three’, followed by a last ‘one’.

That’s it :-). Hope you enjoyed it (if yes, spread the word!). Third movement to follow later this week – see you soon.