Friday, October 31, 2014

Pre-ludes, Middle-ludes, After-ludes Part IV (Final)

This is the forth and final part of the journey to find 24 "musical" thoughts and after-thoughts, middle-thoughts and Pre-thoughts after Chopin's beloved and yet enigmatic Preludes. 

19) With such a pastiche of 24 miniatures, one is compelled to try all sorts of directions for inspiration and imagination. I often find it helpful to orchestrate as my interpretation evolves. For example the surging melody in the left-hand of the b minor prelude (no. 6) might be beautifully conceived on a cello. The texture of the chords in the c minor prelude (no. 20) reminds me of brass. The soaring beauty of the cantilena line in the B flat major prelude (no. 21) could be played on the flute. However, what is extraordinary to me is how idiomatic Chopin's music is. It belongs to the piano! Thinking, imagining, referring to other instruments might add greater nuance to one's playing. But whenever I heard such realizations of Chopin's music on other instruments - whether strings or winds - the music sounded very weak, timid and ultimately unconvincing. Can it be that as great as Chopin's music is, it only sounds good on the piano? 

20) The preludes are at once similar as well as strikingly different. While the differences seem obvious, the similarities are more implicit, hidden. Take for example preludes nos. 2, 3 and 24 - all three exhibit a left-hand obstinate that governs the entire piece. ostinato also sets its tone. In all three preludes the left-hand pattern also begins a few bars before the melody enters. And yet how obviously different these preludes are. Such inner-connections are in abundance throughout the whole set. 

21) While the preludes are so different in character they are also incredibly varied from a technical point of view: the child like simplicity of the A major prelude (no. 7) is at times taught to amateur pianists while the gargantuan b flat minor one (no. 16) is among the most difficult compositions Chopin ever wrote. I once taught the very slow pace chordal c minor prelude (no. 20) to a 9 year old, and yet, I would never attempt to even introduce the same pupil the immensely difficult (especially when the hands are still cold) G major one (no. 3). The reason for such drastic variety lies in the fact that Chopin's technical demands always serve a much greater purpose. Unlike some of his contemporaries (i.e. Liszt) who could enjoy the showmanship aspect of technical difficulties, Chopin did not write technical difficulties for the sake of exhibition. In the preludes the difficulties are part of the music, part of the DNA of the piece, its essence and message. 

22) The composer Robert Schumann was known to have had the gift to sketch in music people that he knew - a portraitist in music. His Carnival op. 9 is the example where several of the movements have names such as Paganini or Chopin.  The Preludes of Chopin, being so many different things, are also influenced by and as a result paint a sketch portrait of a wide range of composers - the elf-like lightness of
Mendelssohn (10); the lied-like with brook-like texture of Schubert (13); the tour-de-force virtuosity of Liszt (16, 24); the coloratura of Bellini (21); A Bach homage and a Bach choral (no. 1 and no. 20); emblematic ambiguity of Schumann (14, 23); and what about Mozart his idol, or Beethoven, even though he did not like him. The subconscious work in mysterious ways.
23) And if we bring up other composers, then what about the ones that came after Chopin’s death and were highly influenced by the Preludes - Faure, Szymanowski, Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich among others. Interestingly Chopin had a profound impact on Russian music. The Russian public was introduced to his music as early as 1829 in a concert in St. Petersburg. The genuine clarity and beauty of Chopin’s melodies, the deep sadness, tenderness and melancholy of his music greatly touched his listeners in Russia. The audience as well as the critics saw him not only as a pianist and composer, but also as a genius poet. The way Chopin incorporated national dances into his music also captured the Russian interest.  With the composer Karl Szymanowski the influence obviously is the direct link to the Polish national school of piano. In my humble opinion though, if we were to draw a line from Bach’s WTC to Chopin’s set, then the next line should be to Debussy’s two books of Preludes! In their originality, inventiveness, new ideas, use of dynamics, finger articulation, use of pedal, motivic development, amorphic shape, emotional range and much more, the Debussy Preludes are as revolutionary as the Chopin’s!!
24) The last words have to be given to none other than George Sand - the woman that causes so much inspiration for Chopin, together with anguish. Sand described the preludes as “most beautiful of short pages, which bring to mind visions of deceased monks, the sound of funeral chants, melancholy and fragrant. They came to him in time of sun and health, in the clamor of laughing children under the window, the far away sound of guitars, birdsongs from the moist leaves, in the sights of the small pale roses coming in bloom on the snow… while charming your ear, they break your heart… Chopin’s genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought… The gift of Chopin is the deepest and fullest feelings and emotions that have been existed.”    

An Epilogue…sorry an Epi-lude:
The Preludes of Chopin are a fountain of inspiration, a wealth of ideas that, having an important place in the music literature. For their brevity, ingenuity, originality, wit and poetry, they constantly attract musicians and audience alike. The most Romantic of composers disliked this association altogether. His music wasn’t inspired by literature or paintings as some of his contemporaries such as Liszt or Schumann. Whereas Beethoven turned the piano into an orchestra (or string quartet at times), and Mozart was bringing to life an opera at the piano, Chopin completely and wholeheartedly conceived his music solely for the piano. In no other single piece that he wrote his genius is more conspicuous as in the set of 24 preludes Op. 28. Even-though these are miniatures, they encompass tremendous emotional power. With seemingly inexhaustible variety of moods and ideas and an endless supply of beautiful melodies the set stands along the great achievements of human creation and vision.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pre-ludes, Middle-ludes, After-ludes (Part III)

Continuing my quest to "find" 24 observations, thoughts and after-thoughts on Frederic Chopin's 24 preludes op. 28. This is chapter 3 out of 4.

13) I once had a few lessons on the preludes with the late pianist Marek Jablonsky. One of the things that intrigued me was that he liked calling the short preludes (nos. 5, 7, 10 etc) "Interludes”, referring to them as short breaths, quick pauses, or as connecting links between two prominent statements. So now we have "Preludes", "Middle-ludes", After-ludes" and "Interludes" - all have different psychological implications to the piece as a whole.   

14) Chopin opposed programmatic references to his music. He refuted Schumann when the latter crafted storied around his Op. 2 variations. Chopin saw music as representing abstract feelings and ideas, transcending visual earthly images. Nevertheless two noteworthy musicians - Hans von Bülow and Alfred Cortot - went as far as giving nicknames to each of the 24 preludes. Occasionally the names are somewhat similar, though most of the time they differ remarkably. It is worth glancing at these names. Hans von Bülow, for example, gave the ubiquitous name "Raindrop" to the famous D flat prelude no. 15. He called the succeeding prelude no. 16 "Hades". Alfred Cortot named the beautiful A flat prelude no. 17 "She told me, I love you…", and to the culminating prelude no. 24 he gave the emphatic name “Blood, Passion and Death".

15) As I mentioned in chapter 1 of this endeavor Chopin organized the preludes differently than the way Bach did. Rather than in chromatic order, Chopin organized them according to what we call the "circle of fifths". As such, each prelude (first major then minor) adds one accidental. The result means that the first half of the cycle (nos. 1-13) employs the keys with the sharps while the second half (nos. 14-24) employs the keys with the flats. Since keys to a piece of music is to a large extent like color to a painting, there is a greater sense of spring or sunrise in the first half of the piece while the second half sounds more autumnal, sunset.

16) Ambiguity seems to be a favorite ingredient when analyzing transcendental works. Ambiguity plays an important role in the preludes. Almost every prelude has an ambiguous element to it. No. 1 -
Melodic: The melody is not on the down beat but rather on the upbeats. It is also toying between being played by the thumb and the pinky.  No. 2 - Tonal: Until the very last chord we cannot be sure of the key. No. 4 - Harmonic: The suspensions throughout this prelude with the two note melody hovering above has a great sense of instability. No. 5 - Rhythmic: The constant hemiolas, together with the extreme brevity of this prelude makes the listener feels disoriented and bewildered. Etc etc.

17) The idea ambiguity should lead to further discussion about the enigmatic no. 14 in e flat minor? This prelude is pure anarchy!! It is almost violent - not from anger, but rather from the unknown. It is scary, frightening, and unstable. The pianist Russell Sherman referred to it as music from the under-world. Chopin, the composer that thrived on melodic beauty, sensuality and elegance, the composer that was admired for the suave quality of his sound, his soft touch, wrote here a piece of incredible darkness and menace. The two hands are playing absolutely the exact same pitches an octave apart. Both hands are playing continuous eighth notes, and it is all in the same low "F" clef. A dark shadow. Never has brevity been so brief, and ambiguity been so emblematic. Needless to say, one should compare this prelude to the final movement of another great work by Chopin - the 2nd sonata.    

18) “Chopin’s music is essentially unhealthy. That is its imperfection and also its danger”. 
This comforting statement belongs to Hippolyte Barbedette, a scholar of the mid 19th century who wrote essays on Chopin’s music. While admiring Chopin's individuality and remarking that the Preludes are “a jewel-box of precious stones”, she also wrote that he was a sick man who enjoyed suffering and did not want to be cured. Furthermore she pointed that by playing his music one will inevitably imagine that the sickness is his own. She concluded with the above quote which I find to be absolutely true - Chopin's music is dangerous to play. It is also unhealthy. These might be two of the reasons why we cannot leave without it. It is intoxicating.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I came, I saw, I wanted to stay,,,

Canceling art vs. Creating art:

Not long ago a good friend of mine posted on Facebook a newspaper announcement that: "The board of the Delaware Symphony has decided to cancel the next season of the orchestra." As usual the reason was linked to the financial situation.

The "shock waves" were felt as far as two hours away, which is where I live in Maryland. I immediately wrote to my friend offering to come and play a benefit concert. My main goal (aside from a chance to have lunch with my good friend), was to show that people outside the community also care. I also wanted to raise awareness to my strong belief that canceling a season / cutting concerts… could not be a solution for "helping" sustain art. In other words canceling music could not help make music. There has to be another way, or music will not be heard anymore in this beautiful building shown here. 

Before playing a note, I addressed the appreciative audience, many of which were patrons, sharing with them my feelings and concerns regarding cutting concerts due to financial climate. The second step after that is probably shutting down the museum because that takes a lot of tax money. Next on the list will be turning the park into a parking lot, and soon enough, without music, museum and a park we might as well move to another city, one that offers these essential "luxuries". The recital raised $50,000. I was happy and proud, but later learned that this is like giving a band-aid to stop massive bleeding.

On the contrary, last weekend I gave a concert in a small town in Virginia called Staunton. Nestled in the Shenandoah valley near the foothills of the Blue-ridge mountains, prior to the year 2000 Staunton was just another little town, an exit on interstate 81 going north or south. In 2001 a group of art lovers got together and raised money to build the only re-creation of a Shakespeare indoor theatre in the US - The Blackfriars Play House. The city was transformed after the theatre was built, and the American Shakespeare Center, which was founded in 1988 as a Touring Troupe, moved in as its resident company. 

Since opening its gates more than half a million people visited this theatre. A number of hotels opened up in the downtown area along with new restaurants. The town is now a cultural destination where people from all around come to see one of sixteen different productions each year. The shows run five days a week, a total of 7 performances mostly in the evenings but also at times in the morning (for students) and afternoon (the elderly). I could not help it, and went to see Shakespeare's "As you like it" at 10:30am the morning of my concert. There were many students. It was thrilling - so fresh, so alive. I was inspired.    

In the middle of nowhere, three hours away from the nearest big city, there lies a small town that thanks to its theatre has become a destination to many. I want to believe it has also become a better place to live. Seven performances a week?! Are there so many art lovers in Staunton to fill the sits? Maybe the answer is that when you build something special people will come? Perhaps also the people who helped create this place feel responsible to bring their friends to the shows? Whatever the answer may be, it is an example of how to create not to cancel, how to make something where there was nothing, and how art can change as well as revive a whole town.

I do not know if it is possible to do the same with music let alone an orchestra. To play seven concerts a week in a small village? Wouldn't that be something?! Playing concerts for kids, elderly people, whoever… seven concerts every week! I do not know. I sure though wanna live in such a place! Hopefully it also has a nice little museum, a park and even a small Shakespeare theatre…