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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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!"
- 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
- 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).
- 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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