Vantage | Volume 6 | Number 1
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 | Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)
Programme Notes by Christine Pang
Frédéric Chopin, often regarded as ‘The Poet of the Piano’, was a composer of the Romantic era. As is well known, he wrote many pieces for solo piano including études, nocturnes and waltzes. Unlike other famous composers such as Mozart and Haydn, who composed numerous piano concertos, Chopin wrote only two throughout his lifetime. In fact, his Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor was written a year before the Concerto No.1 in E minor, but was published later.
After a triumphant visit to Vienna in August 1829, Chopin returned to Warsaw and wrote his two concertos. He finished his Concerto in E minor by the end of August 1830, and declared: “My second concerto (Concerto in E minor) … is far too original… The Rondo is effective and the first movement Allegro is impressive.” Chopin was only twenty years old when he finished writing this concerto. It is astonishing to think that a composer at this young age was able to reveal such emotional depth and range in his work. On 11 October 1830, Chopin performed this concerto to the public at the National Theatre in Warsaw, which marked his final public appearance in Poland. He then went to Paris as he wanted to widen his horizons, and stayed there for the rest of his life.
The orchestral part of this concerto only has a minor role, or rather, it is an accompaniment for the solo, partly because when orchestral forces were unavailable, pianists would play the concerto with just chamber accompaniment. However, the orchestral part is definitely indispensable, as it introduces new materials and provides support. While some may think that Chopin was not skilled in orchestration and that the orchestral part is dry and uninteresting, the simplicity of the arrangement contrasts with the complexity of the harmonies. The first movement of this concerto, Allegro Maestoso, starts with a long and majestic orchestral introduction, followed by a strong opening by the pianist. This movement consists of both eloquent passages and passageworks that show virtuosity. It also has many unusual modulations that continually alternate between E minor and E major until finally modulating upward to G major, then back to E minor as the movement ends.
The second movement, Romanze-Larghetto, is lyrical and nostalgic. It brings the audience to a wistful and sentimental state of mind. According to one of Chopin’s letters, he said, “It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather romantic, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.”
The last movement, Rondo-Vivace, is ebullient and spirited. Chopin was inspired by Polish folk dances when he wrote this movement. The refrain repeats with small variations, alternating with energetic and lively episodes. The responses of the orchestra are rather witty and bouncy, while the pianist remains dominant. It ends with an exciting run across the keys in virtuosic splendour.
* * *
Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 31 No. 3 ‘The Hunt’ | Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
II. Scherzo Allegretto vivace
III. Minuetto Moderato e grazioso
IV. Presto con fuoco
Programme Notes by Ernest Li
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, the thirty-two Piano Sonatas are the most significant. These sonatas show his success in combining the Classical tradition from his predecessors with his exploration—especially in modulations—and expansion of the classical form.
Completed in 1802, Sonata in E-flat major is one of Beethoven’s works from his middle period. It has the nickname ‘The Hunt’ which was not assigned by the composer himself. The piece consists of four movements among which there is no slow movement, making the form unusual and the atmosphere joyful. The first movement, Allegro, is written in sonata form. The piece opens with a special chord which delays the arrival of the tonic (E-flat). The key moves from E-flat major to its dominant, B-flat major, with a lyrical second theme consisting of Alberti Bass in the left hand. When the development approaches, the mood becomes tense and modulations take place, bringing the piece to various keys before finally returning to E-flat major in the recapitulation and coda.
The second movement, Scherzo-Allegretto vivace, is different from other scherzi as it is written in 2/4 time instead of 3/4 time, and it is in sonata form, not in ternary form which makes the movement unconventional. However, like other scherzi, this scherzo carries a playful nature with the use of staccato accompaniment in the left hand. The unexpected pauses and dynamic contrasts also bring interest and humor to the piece.
Similar to a typical form of Minuet and Trio, the third movement, Minuetto Moderato e grazioso, is written in 3/4 time in ternary form. The whole movement is in the key of E-flat major with a tender and soft singing upper melody supported by the harmony underneath.
The final movement, Presto con fuoco, has a very fast tempo and a vigorous character caused by the non-stop drive of rhythm. Written in sonata form, this movement is in 6/8 time with a tarantella rhythm which depicts the hunting scene with horse riding, echoing the nickname ‘The Hunt’. The piece is dominated by a continuous, rolling eight-note accompaniment in the bass and a ‘horn’ theme made of broken sextuplets. Towards the coda section, more dynamic tension is added with fortissimo contrasting with piano, bringing the piece to a highly energetic closing.
Vantage | Volume 5 | Number 3
Prelude & Fugue in A flat major, BWV 862 | J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach is generally regarded as one of the greatest German musicians of the Baroque era. Prelude & Fugue in A flat major, BWV 862 No. 17 is part of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of two sets of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys, starting chromatically from C major. Bach composed the collection for educational purposes. It made one of the greatest contributions to the keyboard repertoire.
The prelude begins with a short, melodic and fanfare-like motif, built mostly from the notes of the tonic triad, and repeated in different harmonies and keys. The rhythm, consisting of leaping quavers and semiquavers, is passed between two voices from right to left hand as if they were having a conversation. The melody changes to E flat major during the piece, then returns to A flat major towards the end. The prelude has a bold and yet light, playful, and dancing character.
The fugue has four different voices. It starts on an offbeat with a proud, cheerful and lively melody in the tenor, then passes on to the bass, then the soprano, and the alto. In the middle of the fugue, the key changes to F minor, its relative minor, then to B flat minor, then E flat major, then back to A flat major to finish off the piece with a grand ending. This piece features many of Bach’s hallmark styles such as rhythmic vitality and an intricate polyphonic melody structure. The element and details of each voice are clear, elaborative, and should remain distinguishable, even when they overlap with other voices, to bring life to the texture of the piece.
* * *
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 – “Moonlight” | Beethoven (1770-1827)
I. Adagio sostenuto
III. Presto agitato
Ludwig van Beethoven is a predominant German figure in the history of piano music. He is often described as the composer who expanded across and started the evolution between the Classical and Romantic eras because of his endless experimentation and exploration beyond the norm on tonal, instrumental and textural possibilities.
Completed in 1801, Beethoven dedicated Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi with whom he fell in love.
The first movement, in C sharp minor, is a slow, restrained but sustained passage consisting of steady triplets in the right hand; deep, haunting, and ringing octaves in the left hand. The atmosphere is dark, mysterious and deeply reflective. Instead of floating in the magic of moonlight, I would think of it as the spiritual voice of someone mourning for the loss of love or lamenting in the midst of pain at a funeral. It is to be played delicately at pianissimo or piano. It reinforces a mystic, ghostly, almost other-worldly aura, making the movement sound like a solemn funeral hymn for the death of love.
The second movement is distinctly faster and livelier in D flat major, the parallel major of the first movement. It is in the style of a scherzo, with playful articulation of a charming, innocent and sweet melody.
The third movement brings us back to the darkness of C sharp minor; indeed, to an emotional turmoil. It is the weightiest of the three movements, and has an overall turbulent, almost threatening, attitude. There is an overpowering ferocity of conflicting emotions: a tempestuous rage built on arpeggios and strongly accented notes that creates a feeling of unease and agitation; yet at the same time, a second, more lyrical sense of longing comes in stark contrast.
* * *
Variations Brillantes in B flat major, Op. 12 | Chopin (1810-1849)
Often described as the “poet of the piano”, Frédéric François Chopin is regarded as one of the most influential Polish composers of the Romantic period. He composed Variations Brillantes, Op. 12 at the age of 23. As an opera aficionado, he wrote this set of variations on Act I aria “Je vends des Scapulaires” from the opera Ludovic. Chopin dedicated the piece to Emma Horsford, his pupil.
This piece starts off with a grand opening in a virtuosic manner in 4/4 meter, but changes to 6/8 in the theme. The theme, from Ludovic, is subtle, charming and sweet.
The first variation consists of a series of elaborate legato semiquavers that represent the theme. In the second variation, the left and right hands are rhythmically unified. It has a dance-like staccato rhythm, creating a buoyant and energetic atmosphere.
The third variation brings us back to some graceful, sweet tenderness and expressiveness that draw us into greater emotional depth. The use of a song-like melody in the right hand resembles the mood of a nocturne.
A long, swirling and flowing passage leads the third variation into the fourth-a scherzo with an animated mazurka-like rhythm in the bass to bring a lively, playful and at times, quirky atmosphere.
Leading to the end is the dazzling, often chromatic, “brilliant” coda, that plays in a showy, spirited and sparkling style to give the piece an aura of drama.
* * *
La plus que lente | Debussy (1862-1918)
Claude Debussy is often seen as a revolutionary figure in the music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He used rich but unconventional harmonies and the fluidity of colour and rhythm to evoke distinctive layers of nuance, moods, and impressions. Exploration with an imaginative mind is of the essence.
Published in 1910, La plus que lente is a waltz written for solo piano. The title reference to “the even slower waltz” is meant to outdo, in a humorous way, the popularity of valse lente (slow waltz) style in Paris’ salons at the time. Set in G flat major, this piece retains the waltz spirit but transcends it through the use of irregular phrasings and unresolved dissonances. The elasticity of the melody creates a relaxing soundscape that immerses us into different layers of colours, emotions and sensualities. The tempo is free with a lot of rubato that accentuates expressiveness. It calls for a liberal mind of the performer, with spontaneity but depth of understanding.
* * *
Trois pièces, FP48:3 Toccata | Poulenc (1899-1963)
Francis Poulenc was an important French composer of the Neoclassical movement that aims to revive old musical elements of order, balance, emotional restraint and clarity of articulation. His music is direct and melodic, with an emphasis on rhythms and diatonic textures. Humour and wit are important characteristics in his music.
Toccata is part of the Trois Pièces Pour Piano collection, dedicated to Poulenc’s teacher, Ricardo Vines. The piece is atonal, very chromatic and dissonant, and explores many different keys within the piece. The piece begins with an accented, quirky and bold introduction in homophonic parallel fifths. With the fast and busy running of semiquavers and plentiful use of unexpected and unresolved dissonance, it highlights some improvising qualities and sustains a fun, flashy and whimsical character to the end.
Vantage | Volume 5 | Number 1
Chopin: Scherzo from Cello Sonata, Op. 65 by Samuel Cotta*
The Cello Sonata in G Minor, Opus 65, was Frédéric Chopin’s last major work as his life was cut short at the age of 39 by severe illness, possibly tuberculosis. He composed mainly for the piano, but wrote for voice and chamber as well. On his deathbed, he wanted his unpublished works to be destroyed, although his wish was not fully carried out, as the composer’s mother and sisters requested for his musical executor (Julian Fontana) to choose twenty-three unpublished piano pieces. He combined them, eventually publishing eight opuses in the year 1855. The cello sonata is one of a few compositions he has written with instruments other than the piano and is a masterpiece among them.
Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15, No. 6 “An Important Event by Chun Ho Mak**
The sixth movement is ambivalent in character because it combines liveliness and serenity, briskness and tranquility. An interesting aspect of Kinderszenen is the dynamic markings. As well as that, the movement is structured in ABA form. The A section is constructed out of two semi-phrases, the first one forte and the second one an octave lower in mezzo forte. It’s mostly marked pianissimo, but only No. 6 and a small section of No. 11 are marked fortissimo. Hence the listening of the cycle requires deep concentration and can evoke a very tense atmosphere.
Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15, No. 7 “Dreaming” by Chun Ho Mak**
The seventh scene is one of Schumann’s best-known pieces. This movement has a rich polyphonic writing. It was placed in the structurally important position of being in the middle to serve as a central slow movement for the set. Its charming melody and quieting power have recommended it to generations of concert pianists who wish to calm audiences after a long series of rousing encores.
Schumann: First movement from Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 105 by Ethan Cotta*
In 1850 Robert Schumann arrived in Düsseldorf to take up the position of the city’s music director. Around the same time Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and famous for his collaboration with Felix Mendelssohn on his violin concerto, requested Schumann to write a work for a violin and piano. Schumann eventually responded by writing his first violin sonata, opus 105 in A minor. He composed the work in a period of just five days from September 12-16, 1851. Although the first public performance of the violin sonata was given by the composer’s wife, pianist Clara Schumann, and the work’s dedicatee, Ferdinand David in March 1852, Clara first performed the work in a private concert with a different violinist and commented in her diary: “We were particularly moved by the very elegiac first movement and the lovely second movement” while noting that they had more trouble pulling off the last movement. While Robert Schumann initially had some doubts about the sonata, he declared himself fully satisfied when he finally heard performances by the great violin virtuoso, Joseph Joachim.
Chopin: Scherzo No. 3 by Brandon Son*
This piece, Scherzo No.3 in C-sharp minor (Op.39), is one of four scherzos written by Chopin between 1831 and 1843. Scherzo means “joke” in Italian and refers to a playful movement in a longer symphony. Chopin’s scherzos, however, are mature and serious in tone and this Scherzo No.3 is unique in that he combines lyrical subject with an energetic, virtuosic motif throughout the piece.
The introduction creates an intentional tonal ambiguity for quite a long time and when a key, C-sharp minor, is finally reached, it progresses into the fierce main theme which demands considerable technique for parallel running octave patterns. As a contrast, the following D-flat major section combines soft and cantabile style melody with a flurry of ornamental notes afterwards. It finally returns to C-Sharp minor and transforms the main motif into a dramatic ending with grandiose flair and emphatic power.
* YMS 2019 US Tour participant.
** Participant in Vantage Music Academy’s Music Theory class/ writing class.
Vantage | Volume 4 | Number 3
Bach’s three Periods by Audrey Shuen*
On March 31, 1685, Bach was born in Eisenach, Central Germany. His works are very important in the history of music: some pieces are for students to practice, some are written for fun, some are dedicated to the nobility, and some are written for the church.
He had three brilliant creative periods: The first stage was the “Weimar Period” (1703-1717), the second stage was the “Köthen Period” (1717-1723) and the third period was the “Leipzig period” (1723-1750).
During 1740-1750, Bach went to Berlin and was treated as an honourable guest of King Frederick II of Prussia. Bach composed “The Musical Offering” and dedicated it to Frederick. He was also appointed as a royal composer. Unfortunately, he was blind after having two eye surgeries. Finally, Bach died on July 28, 1750 in Leipzig. During this period, Bach completed famous pieces including “Goldberg Variations”, “The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2”, and the “The Art of Fugue”.
The origin of Goldberg’s name by Christine Pang*
This piece was named Goldberg as Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a servant in the old days, performed it for the ambassador of Russia. -The ambassador had trouble with sleeping, so he asked J.S. Bach to write a few songs that are soft but vivid. After he listened to the songs, he was very happy with them. He gave Bach money as a reward. Goldberg only performed the pieces that Bach composed, yet the pieces were named after him. The reason for using his name might be because he was the first person who played the songs, or his performance was extraordinary that people decided to use his name. However, the accuracy of the story has been questioned. It may just have been a legend that Bach’s biographer, Forkel, made up. Researchers think the title of the piece should be named after the ambassador if it were written for him. It was also not possible for Goldberg who was only 14 years old, to play such a difficult piece.
The Clavierübung and the Goldberg Variations by Ernest Li**
Clavierübung was a German title widely used for collections of keyboard pieces in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It was first adopted by Johann Kuhnau in 1689. Later, other composers started publishing their works too under the title Clavierübung. The title however, was mostly associated with Johann Sebastian Bach’s four Clavierübung publications. All of them were published during his lifetime. The first volume of Bach’s Clavierübung was written for harpsichord which contains the six partitas he composed.
The six partitas were first published separately from 1726 to 1730 before they were grouped in one volume in 1731. The second volume of Clavierübung includes his Italian Concerto and French Overture written for two-manual harpsichord, bringing out the contrasting effect of forte and piano. The volume was published in 1735. The third volume was sometimes referred to as the German Organ Mass published in 1739. It contains Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, a series of chorale preludes and the four duets for organ. The fourth volume of Clavierübung is Aria with Diverse Variations, known as the Goldberg Variations written for harpsichord, published in 1741.
Goldberg’s Structure by Natalie Lui*
The Goldberg Variations is one of the longest sets of variations in classical music. Usually, a normal set of variations lasts 20 minutes with 12 variations. However, the Goldberg Variations consists of 30 variations and lasts around 38 minutes. With the Goldberg Variations being such a long work, it requires a strong and tight structure to hold it together, just as any large building requires a strong structure to prevent it from collapsing. Therefore, in the Goldberg Variations we can find analogies with architectural structure in order to navigate around the piece and also to construct a mental image of the piece as one unified work and not as some random mass of music piled together.
For example, in the Goldberg Variations we can find the equivalent of columns in buildings in the form of canons, which appears systematically in every third variation. These act as the main supports for the set. Scattered around these canons are decorations such as the virtuosic variations that involve a lot of hand-crossings, or the less frequently encountered gems that are the slow variations and minor variations. Last by not least, there is a front entrance and a back entrance in the form of the aria theme that appears at the beginning and the end.
The canons in Goldberg by Nicoletta Bien**
Bach is one of the greatest canon writers. Every third variation of Goldberg is a canon, and there are in total nine canons. Even though canons are said to be the strictest composition technique, it still has a very wide variety. Canons involve a leader and a follower. The leader is the main melody where the follower will then appear with the same melody in the middle. Variation no. 3 in Goldberg is exactly the case, the melody repeats even with the same pitch. But the form of the follower can also be changed. For example, Variation no. 6 is a canon where the melody rises up a key every time it repeats. For Variation no. 9, it has an interval of a third for the canon. It has a more supportive base when compared to the other canons. Variation no. 12, also the fourth canon of Goldberg, is a bit unusual, and is a little bit more difficult to recognize as a canon. It is separated by an interval of a fourth and the follower moves in the opposite direction of the leader, which is also known as contrary motion. The fifth canon, variation no. 15 also uses contrary motion, but it has an interval of a fifth instead of a fourth. It is also the first minor variation in the Goldberg, making this variation both beautiful and severe. Variation no. 18, the sixth canon, has an interval of sixth. The next canon is the second variation that is in the minor key, with the canonic parts separated by a seventh. It starts with a low note, and is followed by the right hand, with a feeling of sorrow. The next canon Variation no. 24 is with gentle tunes using octaves as the interval. It is the only canon where the leader changes in the middle of the piece. The last canon is Variation no. 27. It is very special as it does not have a bass line, and is the only pure canon in the Goldberg Variations.
Goldberg’s performance history by Hayley Zheng**
Bach’s Goldberg Variations had been neglected by people for a long time. It was not well known after Bach’s death and took some 100 years before it was finally performed in public by Liszt in the 1840s, but even that performance was most likely only of a selection of the variations. After Liszt, one of the first persons to seriously promote the Goldberg was the female harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who played and recorded it in the early 20th century.
In 1955, Canada pianist Glenn Gould held a public performance of Goldberg in Washington. By this time, the Goldberg had become mainstream repertoire for the harpsichord, but not for the piano Gould’s performance on the piano was such a success that he and the Goldberg became world-famous overnight. After that, Gould signed with Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and recorded the Goldberg. This was the first CD of Gould and boasted remarkable sales numbers and because of this, Goldberg truly became well-known in the world and is now considered one of Bach’s most important works.
Differences of the harpsichord and the piano by Bibiana Bien**
Made and used in different times, the harpsichord and piano are full of differences. At a physical level, the harpsichord produces sound from the plucking of strings, while that of the piano is done by the striking of hammers on strings. Naturally and therefore, the sounds produced are different. Music from the harpsichord shows less flexibility as pressure exerted on the keys by the player has no effect on its dynamics; the length of notes (articulation) can also only be detached to a certain extent and is relatively uniform. Both mediums have shorter strings as the notes become higher, so the volume decreases as the pitch increases, and in the harpsichord, the difference is more obviously so.
Goldberg on harpsichord vs on piano by Bibiana Bien**
Having said that, Goldberg Variations, composed in the Baroque period was originally made to be played on the harpsichord. On the piano, dynamics are easily controlled and have larger variations, whereas the harpsichord is only capable of having different volumes by adjusting the distance the string is plucked from the bridge. Apart from this though, in order to compensate for the lack of dynamics when playing the harpsichord, more articulations and rubato are used. Some people might also occasionally play the notes in a way that the right hand and left hand aren’t played exactly together, such that the music does not sound as rigid as written in the score. It is notable that many ornaments are used in the Variations, so they add colour to the piece when played on the harpsichord, but on the piano, one has to be careful that the excess use of ornaments may lead to bulky melodies.
Another major difference during playing comes from the difference of number of keyboards. The double keyboard harpsichord consists of two keyboards, one on the top and one on the bottom whereas the piano consists of only one, albeit with a larger range. As the cross-hand playing technique often occurs in the Goldberg Variations, these double keyboard harpsichords enable easier playing as one does not have to cross hands playing in a narrow space, but separate hands playing on two keyboards, making cross hand parts easier to be played without much hindrance.
In short, there are evident differences between the two instruments, while certainly the piano allows a larger range of musical effects, Goldberg on the Harpsichord has its own style too. ′
* YMS concert participant.
** Participant in Vantage Music Academy’s Music Theory class/ writing class
Vantage | Volume 4 | Number 2
Tchaikovsky: April: Snowdrop, from the Seasons
This piece is part of a set of twelve short character pieces for piano solo called “The Seasons’” (Les Saisons in French) composed by a Russian, Romantic Period composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Each piece in this set of character pieces represents each of the twelve months of the year. The piece that I’m playing is the month, April (Avril) which is the fourth month of the year. When I play the piece, I feel like this piece is joyful, jolly, and when I listen to this piece, I always feel like wanting to dance because the music is also kind of swaying. It is a peaceful and smooth piece, and it sounds like snowdrops gently dropping into the dirt underneath. The dynamics of this piece usually stays at the range of pianissimo to around forte. April is a really nice, gentle, happy piece.
Selected programme notes by Xinran Tong (YMS concert participant)
Mussorgsky: Promenade and The Old Castle from Pictures at an Exhibition
The composer of these pieces of music was Mussorgsky who was from Russia. He was born on 21 March 1839 and died on 28 March 1881. He was part of a group named The Five, alongside Mussorgsky which consisted of 4 other Russian composers.
The group had a general goal which was to create a nationalist school of Russian music. Mussorgsky wrote the Pictures at an Exhibition as a memorial to his Russian friend, Viktor Hartmann, who died in 1873 at the age of 39. Soon after the artist’s death, Mussorgsky visited the exhibition of his artworks. He felt that he had to capture the artwork through music, so he wrote the pieces of Pictures at an Exhibition. Each piece of music from this album represents each piece of artwork. The whole idea of this piece of music (The Old Castle) is to make it sound old/ ancient and a bit terrifying because the actual painting was painted and made to look ghostly. It is not all cheerful, fun and ecstatic as it’s supposed to give haunted and scary vibes to the audience of the artwork and this piece of music.
Selected programme notes by Leanne Nguyen (YMS concert participant)
Mussorgsky: Hut on Fowl’s Legs from Pictures at an Exhibition
This piece illustrates a witch called Baba-yaga who lives in a hut with chicken legs. It contains a lot of chromatics and octaves, and is also generally in forte with many accented notes. The first few bars are already dissonant and very loud, showing how intimidating the witch is. There are parts where the left hand is in octaves climbing in 4ths symbolising the ragged movement of the house on chicken claws. The middle part becomes suddenly soft to give a mysterious and creepy feeling, letting us feel the horror of Baba-yaga. This is a really frightening and exciting piece.
Mussorgsky: The Great Gates of Kiev from Pictures at an Exhibition
This piece illustrates the large magnificent gate painted by Mussorgsky’s friend Hartmann, which does not exist in real life, lest in Ukraine, as the title suggests. The piece is basically made of chords of the same theme, almost every single one in major, giving a very grand atmosphere throughout the piece. The use of pedal that merges together different chords also symbolises the chimes of the massive bell hung on the great gate. In general, the music gives the atmosphere of triumph and victory.
Selected programme notes by Bibiana Bien (Participant in Vantage Music Academy’s Music Theory class)
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)