Thursday, April 29, 2010

Album for the Young 2

Although its title isn't exactly "Album for the Young," the intent is obviously the same. Here we see another attempt by a great Russian composer (well, Soviet actually) to create piano music specifically for young musicians. The music itself is wonderful. But will the kids receiving my musical care package be equal to the challenge?

Music for Children
Twelve Easy Pieces for the Piano
, op. 65
by Sergei Prokofiev

My edition of this book comes from the same publisher as the Tchaikovsky book I reviewed yesterday. It has half as many pieces, but it costs 50% more. On the other hand, all 24 Tchaikovsky pieces put together constitute only 5 pages more than the 12 in this book. So our first comparative observation will be that that the pieces, on average, are longer and more developed. Only one piece is confined to a single page; several are as long as three pages. So one skill this book will require Junior to cultivate is the quick, unobtrusive page-turn.

Another thing to note is that this music was composed in 1935, so it will expose Junior to some of the broader harmonies and expressive techniques of 20th century music. Not to worry, however! There isn't a bar of "ugly" music in this book. If the sound of your child practicing it sets your teeth on edge, don't blame the composer; and be patient! It takes time for these skills to develop! As to the pieces...

1. Morning is a gentle, lyrical piece requiring mastery of a wide range of notes, from a low G below the bass staff to a high G above the treble staff. There are a couple of hand-crossings, spots where (for example) the left hand reaches above the right hand. In the middle of the piece, there is a passage where the L.H. "gravely" intones the melody while the R.H. plays wide-open arpeggios with repeated notes requiring finger-substitutions. The dynamics are delicately shaded, with such expressive terms as cantabile, dolce, and pochis. rit., which means "the tiniest slowing-down imaginable." Not exactly what you'd expect of Lesson 1 of a child's primer, but it's gorgeous!

2. Promenade depicts a quirky sort of parade or procession in which the observer seems to view those passing by with just a hint of dry wit. At first it doesn't sound like it's going to be very interesting, but things pick up as Prokofiev piles on unexpected harmonies, some unembarrassed dissonance, a few hand crossings, and passage of L.H. melody where, at times, Junior will have to wrestle the R.H. part into the background with all his strength. Plus, it may take some work to keep the rhythm rock-steady with all those triplets in the L.H. part.

3. A Little Story is a slow, minor-key melody over an accompaniment that has an insistent rhythmic pattern. The hands briefly switch parts, execute a 16th-note run in octaves, play cascading sixths, and cross each other. Junior will have to learn to read ledger-line notes more than an octave above the treble staff, play repeated notes without pounding them (or separating them too much), and execute a two-octave arpeggio in the final bars. Prokofiev's genius is such that even with all these problems, it is still a piece that a diligent fifth-grader could learn and love.

4. Tarantella is a quick dance in a compound meter (6/8, which is to say 2 groups of 3 eighths to the bar). Parts of it are a good exercise in the type of rolling arpeggios frequently required of the L.H. This piece may be a young musician's first acquaintance with such chords as A-flat minor. And not only does it have the first key signature in the book (following 2 pieces in C major and one in A minor, neither of which has any sharps or flats), but it actually calls on Junior to watch out for changes of key signature, from D minor to D major and back again. The piece ends with a short coda (again in D major) with its own tempo marking whose vocab-building Italian terms mean "not quite so fast."

5. Regrets, also in D minor, challenges Junior (not for the first time) to keep an eye out for clef-sign changes. The R.H. charts a course from the A below the bass staff to a B-flat more than an octave above the treble. The piece also involves "8va" brackets, tenuto marks, and eerily effective moments where both hands are playing the same notes two octaves apart. And there are several instances of the type of arpeggios for which fingering exercises were invented.

6. Waltz is a butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth graceful piece in the three-sharp key of A, complete with "oom-pah-pah" figures in the L.H. which must, at all cost, be kept in a gently flowing wavelength. The melody is pure Prokofiev, an inimitable combination of smoothness and angularity, sweetness and oh-so-delicate irony. The last note of the R.H. part is within an octave of the top of the keyboard. If something about this piece doesn't make you breathe a melancholy sigh, you're not doing it right.

7. March of the Grasshoppers, a brisk 2/4 march in B-flat, abounds in the eighth-note/sixteenth-rest/sixteenth-note figure that long acquaintance with Chopin has taught me to think of as "Mazurka-dotted eighths." At this rapid tempo, there is no time to be precise about the placement of that sixteenth-rest. It's really more about the character of the articulation: crisp and springy. The piece has some humorous touches, passages in which the two hands double each other at the octave, a couple of contrasting tempi, and a startling key change to B major (5 sharps!) for the central section.

8. The Rain and the Rainbow is the book's sole one-page piece. It introduces Junior to the wonderful world of note clusters, such as the F-G-A-B chord in Bar 2 -- mostly clusters of either all-white or all-black notes, though with a couple of sharp minor-second dissonances as well. One bar asks young maestro to sustain two neighboring black notes while repeatedly playing the white note between them. I tell a lie; two bars do that, actually. Beat 3 of the second-last bar features a ninth chord with an augmented fifth, something you don't hear every day.

9. Playing Tag is another galloping 6/8 piece whose main challenge is the rapidly running eighths in the melody, runs in which repeated notes are a frequent road-hazard. That's the main challenge, I say, unless you count the quick hand-crossings and hand-substitutions, the rapid alternations between loud and soft, and a final chord in which the L.H. strikes the high F an octave above the R.H.

10. March makes frequent use of grace notes. After the first two bars create a false impression of simplicity, the R.H. enters and immediately displays Prokofiev's penchant for the unpredictable. Again, there are hand-crossings, curious harmonies, and even a chord that has both a G-flat and a G-sharp. Keep your eye on the clef-sign, kids!

11. Evening opens in F major with 4 bars of L.H. accompaniment before the R.H. brings in yet another weirdly lyrical Prokofiev tune. Part of the first page of the piece has both hands answering each other with 16th-note arpeggiated patterns. By the end of the page, the key changes to the as-yet-undiscovered world of A-flat (4 flats!), only to shift a couple of phrases later to the key of C. By the time the F-major key signature comes back, Junior will have to know how to use the pedals in order to play all the notes as written.

12. The Moon Strolls in the Meadows is a breathtakingly delicate, tender melody over a gently rocking accompaniment, each hand accompanying the other by turns. To me there is something poignantly Russian about this tune. If anyone but Prokofiev had written a piece with this texture, it would be insufferably cute and saccharine, but Sergei Sergeyevich knows just how to bend the line so that you sense a shadow of sadness behind the silvery shimmer. Junior will have to work out a finger-substitution technique for an L.H. figure covering two octaves. Again there is a key change (from D to B-flat); again there are note-clusters (some necessitating the invention of a Y-shaped stem to hold them). The piece ends, and with it the whole book, with a "Neapolitan-sixth" chord progression that will furnish Junior with an aid to memory for his second-semester music theory exam.

Obviously, Prokofiev's idea of "easy pieces" isn't the same as most people's; but then, he was a child a prodigy. If your child is a prodigy, or you're a child prodigy yourself, you may find these pieces easy. The average child will have to work at them, but I believe the music will reward his or her effort. For the rest, this may be "music for children" in the sense that pianistic parents can play it to their children, with equal pleasure at both ends of the bench.

So, no worries. I'll keep the book and enjoy playing it myself. When my friends' kids are ready, I'll get a copy for them. Till then, it would only serve as a benchmark to aim for--and I have better uses for the "buying piano books for non-biological nieces and nephews" fund in my personal budget.

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