Comments on a Fistful of Notes

Here are some of the thoughts that went through my head as I was working on this collection. I'm obviously not an expert (well, duh), so do take these musings on the fourteen pieces with a big chunk of salt.

  1. When people talk about romanticism in music, they usually mean the sort of highly personal, subjective music in (say) Beethoven, as opposed to the almost egoless pieces you get from (say) Bach. Very little of it deals with actual romance as we understand it, however. To my mind, Chopin is the exception. This piece, for instance, is called an étude, but if anything is being studied, I think it's the stuff that's in those Harlequin books.

  2. People call Debussy an impressionist, but to my ears, pieces like this have more to do with Japanese art than with Monet's, say. What I hear is a reaction to a European romanticism that had become way too ornate, bloated even. What do you do after building the garden at Versailles? Build an even more elaborate one? This music seems to say: Look at Japanese stone gardens; you can see the whole universe in a single grain of sand.

  3. Like Bach before him, Fauré wrote formal, abstract music. There is nothing like a song or a dance in his piano pieces. Harmonic motion is what does all the work: simple themes passing through ever shifting chords. In a quiet and unassuming way, this music is revolutionary. All the familiar patterns of chord changes from the past are being set aside, something later composers, like his student Ravel, would of course take much further.

  4. Scarlatti is best known for his harpsichord sonatas, of which there are more than five hundred. These are typically knucklebusting affairs, perfect for displays of keyboard virtuosity, if that's your thing. But within this avalanche of notes, there are sonatas like this one that are beautifully calm and introspective. I first heard it in a breathtaking recording by Ivo Pogorelich, and it was his performance that inspired me to try mine.

  5. This Beethoven piece is the longest one in the collection and was the hardest for me to to get right. I certainly don't hear any moonlight, for starters. What I do hear is a current of sadness from the start. It is heartbreaking to think that those bass notes in the left hand were likely the only ones he could hear at the time, and maybe that's why they are so prominent. But there is a stubborn pride in the music too. And then, it all gets to be too much and the whole thing seems about to collapse. But the piece regains its composure and ends with quiet resignation and acceptance. Really now, can any other composer pull off this sort of thing?

  6. The gymnopédies by Satie are the true minimalism, not the frenzies of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. There is almost nothing to the melody, with all the notes falling square on the beat and the left hand playing a strict root-chord pattern. It's hard to imagine a piece with less happening overall (unless you go to Cage and that sort of zaniness). It could have ended up sounding like one of those lead-footed Lutheran hymns. Instead, what I hear is just the opposite, a very delicate melancholy, like leaves dropping from the trees.

  7. Chopin is the only composer of note who limited himself to one instrument. No symphonies, operas, violin concertos, string quartets. Almost nothing but solo piano. And it paid off in such mastery of expression. This piece is the shortest in the collection, but still feels complete and fully realized, from introduction to denouement in just fifty seconds.

  8. This is a piano rendition of an aria from a Handel opera. Handel received very little training, but somehow had an astounding intuitive sense of musical drama. There is a copy of a page of his Messiah in Beethoven's handwriting. I suspect that Beethoven wanted to get inside the music and figure out just how the heck he was doing it. By the end of his life, Handel had become a musical superstar (unlike his contemporary Bach), and yet this aria and the entire opera were forgotten for about two hundred years.

  9. This is the simple aria that Bach varies over and over to make up his Goldberg Variations. It was daunting to take on the piece in the shadow of not just one, but two phenomenal interpretations by Glenn Gould. What else could there be to say? Having completed my version, I'm now afraid to listen to Gould, in case I've stolen too much, or worse, I should have stolen more.

  10. This is the start of the prelude to Tannhauser by Wagner, originally transcribed for piano by Liszt. It's a beautiful composition, but like so much of Wagner, there is a disturbing undercurrent. I can't help but hear triumphalism in this music. It's not just "We are the champions!" but more "Who would dare challenge us now?"  It's music for conquering the world, for having dominion over every living thing. A beautiful expression of a very troubling sentiment.

  11. Ravel is the only composer who was such a nutcase perfectionist that all his compositions are still regularly played. This little gem, taken from a piano concerto, is quite unique for him in that it puts all virtuosity aside and lets a wonderful meandering melody (akin to the one in Bolero) carry the full load. In reference to this melody, Ravel said: "I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!"

  12. Again Fauré takes a theme of just a few notes and winds it through a number of harmonic variations, starting in the high notes, and working his way down. I recognize that this sort of music is not everyone's cup of tea, but for me, abstract music like this cleanses the palette and frees the mind.

  13. This simple prelude by Chopin is sometimes called the saddest piece he composed. I don't hear sadness so much as regret. This is the piece played by the Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces (which I haven't seen in years), and I recall that his character did have much to regret (although in the movie he claims to have chosen the piece only because it was so easy).

  14. Like the Satie, this piece by Schumann is a beautiful miniature, but this time full of optimism and hope for the future, at least to my ears. If Satie's piece is about Autumn, then this one is about Spring.

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