Vantage | Volume 4 | Number 1
Mussorgsky: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks
The fifth piece in Pictures at an Exhibition is called Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. It has a promenade before the Ballet, and it has a scary part. It is because the composer, Mussorgsky, was still thinking about what happened in the fourth picture, called Ox Cart, when walking towards the fifth picture.
The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks has a special place in all the pieces, with its clumsy, weird and light character. The clumsiness comes from the hands mostly not being together. Also, in the actual picture the two chicks are still in their eggs but their hands and head come out. Wearing a shell is heavy and awkward, so they will fall down easily. This also brings about the weirdness of the music from its very angular melody.
Programme notes by Chun Ho Mak (Participant in Vantage Music Academy’s Writing Class)
Mendelssohn: Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14
Felix Mendelssohn was born on 3 February 1809 in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up in Berlin. The Mendelssohn family held regular Sunday concerts at their house, so Mendelssohn grew up with music all around him. He was a terrific pianist as a child who started composing when he was 10 years old and was a wonderful visual artist, teacher, organist and brilliant conductor. He was also one of the most-celebrated figures of the early Romantic period. Mendelssohn died at the age of thirty-eight on 4 November 1847 in Leipzig.
In 1825, whilst visiting Paris, the young Mendelssohn encountered a 12-year-old piano prodigy called Delphine von Schauroth. Mendelssohn met her again in Munich in 1830. Mendelssohn showed her a number of his earlier compositions, including an Étude in E minor that he wrote in 1828. He wrote to his sister Fanny, in June 1830, that Delphine ‘has commanded me, under pain of one disgrace or another, to edit the great 6/8 Rondo Capriccioso in E minor. So, I have tastily cooked it up with a stirring introductory Adagio, some new melodies and passages, and I have been successful…’ The result of Mendelssohn’s effort is this rondo capriccioso, a good example of Mendelssohn’s keyboard style that bears a hint of his incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The piece opens with a 4/4 andante introduction in E major with soft resonant chords over a sturdy bass and a lyrical, arching, song-like melody, to be followed by a 6/8 rondo in the parallel key of E minor, with ascending and descending arpeggios, chromatic scales and double octaves. The piece is energetic and often electrifying—it sparkles with great energy, and yet remains light, graceful and effortless, before it reaches a stormy passage of octaves, in fortissimo, for closure.
Fauré: Impromptu No.2 in F minor, Op. 31
Gabriel Fauré was born on 12 May 1845 in Pamiers in the Occitanie region in southwestern France. He was a French composer, organist, pianist and teacher. Fauré’s major sets of piano works are thirteen nocturnes, thirteen barcarolles, six impromptus and four valses-caprices. His music is described as linking the end of Romanticism with the modernism of the second quarter of the 20th century.
Fauré was regarded as one of the most influential French composers of his generation. The graceful fluidity and uniquely rich but subtle harmonic language in many of Fauré’s works demonstrates the strong influence of Chopin on his musical style. Impromptu No.2 in F minor, Op. 31 is a good example. Dedicated to Mlle Sacha de Rebina, this lyrically charming piece adopts an ABAB form. It is elegant, tranquil but captivating, with an airy rhythm of six quavers per bar in a swirl. It starts off in F minor, running the quavers against a brisk and steady pulse. The middle section is, however, in a contrasting F major, with frequent use of an arpeggiated left hand accompaniment and a two against three rhythm. It takes the audience to a different level with its lightness of texture and impassioned tenderness. It is also interesting to note that the thematic melody is often distributed between both left and right hands throughout the impromptu, and thus should be played with clarity, equality and refined grace.
Selected programme notes by Gwyneth Suen (YMS concert participant)
Vantage | Volume 3 | Number 3
Bach: French Suite no. 5
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a well-known Baroque period composer. Bach composed a total of 45 suites which are sets of instrumental pieces performed at a single sitting consisting of several movements in the same key based on the forms and styles of Baroque dances. The standard Baroque suite consists of mainly four dances: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue.
Bach wrote the six French Suites for keyboard between 1722 and 1725. His French Suite no. 5 is with seven movements, including the standard four dances together with Gavotte, Bourrée and Loure, all written in G major. The opening movement Allemande is set in a moderate tempo in quadruple meter, characterized by the constantly moving legato semi-quavers. It is followed by Courante (meaning ‘running’ and ‘flowing’ in French) which is a fast triple-meter dance. The third dance Sarabande is a slow dance in triple meter with emphasis on the second beat. It is with legato phrases and heavy ornamentation. The Gavotte which comes after is a steady duple-meter dance. It starts at the half-bar and has a moderate tempo, whereas the fifth piece Bourrée is written in a faster and livelier duple time which begins with a shorter upbeat. The sixth movement Loure, is characterized by its interesting dotted rhythm. It is slow and elaborately embellished. The closing Gigue is written in compound duple meter. It is a fugue with a light and energetic mood and fast rhythmic flow.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata Op. 14, No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German composer and pianist who was considered an influential figure in the transition period between the Classical and the Romantic. Among his large body of piano compositions, his 32 Piano Sonatas are the most significant. His sonatas show his success in combining the Classical tradition from his predecessors and his exploration especially in modulations and expansion of the classical form. Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, which are with greater length and contain characteristics such as the declamatory opening of op.111 and the thematic recurrence among movements, paved the way for Romanticism.
Piano Sonata Op. 14, No. 2 was composed in 1799 and it is one of Beethoven’s early works. The first movement – Allegro is written in sonata form. The exposition starts with G major as its main theme. The key moves to its dominant – D major with a lyrical second theme before it reaches the development section where modulations take place, bringing the piece to various keys with A-flat major as the most remote and exploratory. The key finally returns to G major in the recapitulation and coda. The second movement is a slow march in C major, written in theme and variations. The three variations emphasise the syncopated rhythm. The final movement is in rondo form, with a lively rondo theme in G major and contrasting themes set in E minor and C major.
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. posthumous 66
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer and pianist. He moved to Paris in 1831 and spent his remaining years there. He was probably the one usually regarded as least influenced by Beethoven among composers of his generation. Chopin had a gift for melody and an adventurous harmonic sense. He was also a good improviser who was influenced by the expressive quality of the vocal bel canto in the melodic Italian arias. With his legato and ornamentation in his melody supported by wide-spread arpeggiations, Chopin’s music represents the essence of the 19th-century Romantic piano tradition.
Chopin wrote 4 impromptus, works which suggest improvisation. His fourth impromptu, tilted ‘Fantaisie Impromptu’, was written in 1834 but was published posthumously in 1855. The title implies the more rhapsodic nature of his fourth impromptu than the other three. It was written in ternary form with the two A sections in C sharp minor and a contrasting B section in D flat major – a parallel major. The outer sections are in allegro agitato with fast running chromatic passages, while the middle section is quiet and dreamy in the bel canto style. The piece ends with a coda which incorporates themes from both A and B sections. In this impromptu, Chopin’s expressive improvisational quality can be seen in his heavy use of chromaticism and ornamentation in his legato melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment with the use of sustaining pedal.
Programme notes by Ernest Li (Vantage Music Academy Writing Class participant)
Vantage | Volume 3 | Number 2
Bach Prelude in E-at Minor and Fugue in D-sharp minor
Johann Sebastian Bach is a well-known composer of the Baroque period. Throughout his life, he took up many roles, first as an organist in Weimar, where he played music at the chapel, then the director of music in Köthen, and later on as cantor at Leipzig. Bach wrote many famous pieces for the keyboard, namely the two books of Well-Tempered Clavier, the Inventions and the dance suites. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of two series of Preludes and Fugues in all 24 major and minor keys, composed for solo keyboard. Apart from being a composer and an organist, he was also a highly respected organ inspector. The Prelude and Fugues can be seen in the light of his awareness of the mechanical construction of different instruments, addressing a major issue of the time about how an instrument can be tuned such that each of the 24 keys of the keyboard can be used without some keys sounding unacceptably out of tune. And in around 1722, Bach wrote Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E-flat minor (BWV 853).
This prelude and its fugue is written in E-flat minor and D-sharp minor respectively, indicating that the fugue might have been transposed from D minor instead of composed in D-sharp minor. Both pieces have a rather slow and steady tempo which brings out a grave feeling overall. The prelude is made up of minim arpeggiated chords for its bass, while a singing tone is formed on the top line. Throughout the entire piece, almost all of the harmonic centers remain in minor modes, and along with the dotted rhythm in the melodic line, it contributes largely to the seriousness and lamenting character of the prelude. The fugue on the other hand has a unique style of its own. It is occupied entirely with different varieties of its one subject and does not have countersubjects. It has 3 voices and is divided into 4 sections. The first section is free counterpoint, where the subject is played multiple times with other voices freely weaving around. Then it is followed by a stretto with two voices and a stretto with three voices. Lastly, the fourth section is the stretto with augmentation, in which the subject is rhythmically stretched out. This use of augmentation is an antiquated technique borrowed from the Renaissance polyphonic style and is the only fugue that uses it in Book 1.
Haydn Sonata in C Major Hob XVI:50
Joseph Haydn is an Austrian composer who is considered by many to be the pathfinder for the classical style. Haydn is notable for his wit, as seen in compositions like the ‘Joke’ string quartet and the ‘Farewell’ symphony and for his originality of form. For a large part of his life, he was employed at the Esterhazy court, an isolated environment where he only answered to the prince of the place. It was a perfect place for him to experiment and innovate as he did not need to face the critical public and publishers except the prince. After the prince died in 1790 he left the court and made several trips to London where he composed the last three piano sonatas there. Throughout his life, he made great contributions on many musical forms like the symphony and string quartet. Between the three major composers of the classical period (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven), he wrote the greatest number of pieces, among them, over 50 were piano sonatas.
This Sonata in C Major Hob XVI:50 was composed in 1794 and was one of his later compositions. In the first movement, the exposition starts off with an outline of the C-major chord as its main theme, which then undergoes different variations such as switching to the left hand and using it as the de facto subordinate theme, where the same outline of a major chord is used. The theme appeared again later on for multiple times, switching to minor modes briefly, decorated by broken octaves, and a stroke of genius that removes the dotted rhythm and staccato resulting in a smoother and seemingly slower subordinate theme in the recapitulation. The second movement has two unexpected modulations, giving it a hint of seriousness, first to C minor at the start of the development and to F minor in the subordinate theme of the recapitulation. And to add humor to the piece, Haydn put in several accents at metrically wrong places/at unexpected off-beats. The last movement is a short and lively piece. It contains many pauses stopping on problematic chords unrelated to the home key, and thus is a prime example of Haydn’s innovative approach of adding humor by problematizing the music.
Achille-Claude Debussy is a French composer from the 20th century. He was well associated with impressionist music, though he was somewhat ambivalent about this term applied to his pieces. Debussy enjoyed nature, poetry and paintings of different culture which deeply inspired and influenced many of his compositions. Some of the titles, like Estampes, which translates as ‘prints’, even had a close relation to the visual arts, indicating his closeness to it. Many generations of composers that followed was profoundly influenced by Debussy’s harmonic innovations and style of music, listing him as one of the most influential composers of all times.
Estampes is a collection of three pieces namely Pagodes, La soirée dans Grenade and Jardins sous la pluie that was finished in 1903. Debussy dedicated the collection to the portrait painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, whose works included the portrait of novelist Marcel Proust and a gathering of Les Six. In Pagodes, the pentatonic scale was used frequently while traditional eastern style music like Chinese and Japanese tunes were mimicked throughout the piece. Above all, the Javanese gamelan percussion imitation was the most distinctive, bringing out the Far East traditions. Although it was not strictly Javanese, the differently pitched percussion instrument was very well brought out. The second piece, La soirée dans Grenade describes the images of an evening in Grenada, Spain. Through using a distinctive dotted-quaver habanera rhythm, it evokes the images of a Spanish dance. It also uses a soft and subtle Habanera dance rhythm to open the piece, quietly maneuvering itself into our consciousness with the repetition of the C-sharp. The use of the gypsy scale, the mimicking of the strumming of a Spanish guitar further evokes images of admirable Spain. While on the other hand, Jardins sous la pluie talks of a garden under a violent rainstorm. Debussy included two French folk tunes inside, letting us know the rain soaked gardens of the piece is set in France, and closer to home for him. The chromatic howling of the wind, the relentless falling of the rain can be brought out vividly by the piano, and it isn’t till the change in tonality from major to minor that the sun breaks through and calms the storm.
Programme notes by Gloria Au (Vantage Music Academy – Theory Course and Writing Class participant 2016-2017 | Advanced Piano Performance Course)