Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Album for the Young 8

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov saved my life. And here I am nearly 30 years later, trying to make a long story short so that I can move on to discussing his piano music. You know what? I don't think I'm going to bother keeping it short. So grab a bottle, can, or snifter of whatever you're drinking and settle in.

I started taking piano lessons when my parents were still married to each other. I was a gawky eight-year-old with a father who had always regretted not being given the chance to learn music, so as soon as we were settled in his first parsonage, he took my brother and me to the back room of a local store that sold RCA radios and TVs, Hammond organs, and Wurlitzer pianos. There I received my grounding in John W. Schaum's "Middle-C Method" from a middle-aged lady named Edith, who had beautiful fingers and graceful handwriting and a memorable way of counting beats aloud even while inhaling. My brother didn't stick with it, but I did--practicing faithfully, first on an elderly upright-grand in the church parish hall, and then on a nice little Wurlitzer spinet that we bought from the store where Edith gave lessons.

After a couple years, our family moved to another town, so I had to find a new piano teacher. For a while, I took lessons from a certain Peggy who lived next door, and whose daughter was in my grade at school. Peggy introduced me to some intermediate-level collections edited by John Thompson, Schaum, and others, ensuring that the music grew up with me so that I stayed interested. Then something came between my family and the folks next door, the nature of which it would be imprudent to speculate about, so I switched to another lady a few blocks away. Vivian was her name. Vivian was the first to recognize and build on my particular strength as a pianist, which was sight-reading. She introduced me to music theory and the works of many classical composers. Between her influence and the purchase of a large set of second-hand classical LPs, I was soon fascinated with the fine-art side of the music world.

In June of the year I turned 12 years old, my parents split up. (Still with me? Good, because we're getting to the point.) Before our family irrevocably committed itself to nuclear fission, we had a family meeting where it was agreed that whatever happened, I would always have piano lessons and the family piano would go wherever I went. Although my mother didn't immediately take me with her when she moved in with my future stepfather, she did take the piano because it was assumed that, once her new household was in order, I would live with her. This didn't happen as promptly or as smoothly as we had at first reckoned, but it did eventually happen.

My mom's boyfriend, later my stepfather, was also a musician--the only other one in the family. He played the piano by ear and was far from bad at it. His primary instrument was the guitar, though. We didn't have much in common musically. He was into rhythm & blues. I was, like, a total square, man. Nevertheless, he put up with my incessant practicing and even drove me to piano lessons. He paid for the lessons, too--though I think the money ultimately came from my Dad's child support payments.

For a while I had Edith as a teacher again, since we happened to be living in the same town. I particularly remember having a lesson from her the night of the Presidential Election of 1984. Soon afterward, either Edith retired or the RCA store stopped offering lessons, so she referred me to a professor at the local college--I think his name was Miller. (We're getting close to the crux now.) Prof. Miller seemed to have ambitious plans for me. He worked hard on my technique, and he pushed me to the limit of my skills. I remember once reading a 4-hands arrangement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with him, and how exciting that was. I also remember attending a concert involving many of Prof. Miller's students, and I think it was under his tutelage that I played a Chopin piece in a school talent contest.

Unfortunately, Prof. Miller also had a problem with punctuality. Every other Saturday morning, my stepfather would drive me to the college campus, where I would wait outside Prof. Miller's office until he arrived, invariably 10 or 15 minutes late. In order to make sure that I got my money's worth, he would hold me over the end of my scheduled lesson time by as many minutes. Meanwhile, my stepdad had arrived to pick me up, and was furious to be kept waiting. After making several threats to end my piano lessons if Prof. Miller didn't straighten out his ideas, the stepdad took the opportunity to save the money (or rather, to drink it).

This was only a small part of a family soap-opera that eventually made up my mind to move in with my Dad. I'll spare you the other details of the melodrama. It's enough for you to know that I was a hurt, lonely, and angry kid. I hated living with my stepdad. I learned not to trust my mother. I resented not being allowed to take piano lessons, and I rebelled by continuing to practice just as faithfully, if not more so than ever. And when, at last, I succeeded in switching to my father's custody, my mother's parting shot was to break the family pledge and keep my piano for herself, or rather her husband.

I increasingly took solace in my small collection of classical LPs, including a magnificent recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture, to which I listened over and over. And when I spotted Volume 2 of the Kalmus Edition of Rimsky's Piano Solos in a local music shop, I bought it and taught myself to play pretty much everything in it. It was, hands down, my most cherished piano book. By my high school years it was worn ragged, patched, taped, and falling to pieces. On the strength of this one book and a very few others, I kept up the skill level Prof. Miller had brought me to, and even tried to build on the techniques he had shown me. So, although I didn't take another piano lesson until college (where, coincidentally, Vivian was one of my teachers), I remained a disciplined pianist all the way through junior and senior high school. I was so far from being out of practice that, within a few months after moving in with my Dad, I started accompanying church choirs, then my high school's choirs, and playing the organ at church. From there I branched out into singing. I went on to take an undergraduate degree in music, and to this day I am earning money as a church musician, as well as performing in a world-class amateur chorus.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Solos, Volume 2 went with me on this entire journey. When I skipped study hall, every day during 11th and 12th grade, to practice the piano in the choir room--a transgression that my teachers and school administrators overlooked gladly--one of the books I frequently played out of was the Rimsky. When I played a piano piece for a high school talent show, it was one of Rimsky's pieces. When, without any self-consciousness whatsoever, I pounded on the piano in the lobby of my college's student union, many of the pieces I played were by Rimsky--though, to be sure, I had discovered Bach, Chopin, Haydn, and Brahms by then, and was just as likely to play something by one of them. And when (horror of horrors!) I lost my faithful old Rimsky-Korsakov book and had to order a replacement (which is now worn to tatters itself), I took advantage of the opportunity to add Volume 1 to my repertoire.

N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a late Romantic composer who belonged to a school of Russian artists who, as a general rule, put nationalistic themes ahead of formal sophistication. Nevertheless, Rimsky was also known for writing well-structured, intelligent, and highly polished pieces, and for completing or orchestrating works by other members of his school in such a way that they sounded textbook-ready. Many of his critics would say that if Rimsky had one fault, it was a tendency to shave off rough edges that would have been better left on. I can't claim to have listened to many of his larger-scale works, but I like most of what I have heard--except Sheherazade, which bores me silly. Another aspect of Rimsky's work which might be regarded as a fault, though in this case it is one he shares with other members of the Russian nationalist school of composers, is the tendency (especially evident in Sheherazade) of repeating the same exact material, except in a different instrumentation and/or transposed to a new key, instead of developing it via the cultured western methods of thematic treatment. On a level of pure tone-color and folk appeal, this actually works... sometimes. But it doesn't usually work in a symphony.

When it came to piano music, however, R-K was forced to deal more honestly with classical forms. Occasionally, in his piano writing, he does try to get away with repeating the same idea ad nauseam while modulating from key to key and re-shuffling the contrapuntal texture. Such pieces are rare and relatively unsuccessful. Most of the time, as a composer for piano, R-K makes the best use of the limited range of instrumental colors (there being, after all, only one instrument involved) and the compact, at times downright miniature, form of the piece, resulting in a variety of interesting-to-hear, challenging-to-play, structurally satisfying works for piano.

I would recommend Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Solos to any young pianist who is a fair sight-reader, who is willing to work out some interesting but reasonably work-outable problems, and who can appreciate the beauty and emotional effect of pieces that touch on a variety of moods and color-combinations. By and large, they are not showpieces that one will think of working up for a recital or concert. Rather, they are play-at-home pieces for the pianist to enjoy by himself, on days when he (or she) doesn't need any company except the music. They provide something pleasant to think about and to feel when the thoughts and feelings of life get so painful that one needs to take a break from them.

I would start with Volume 2--mainly because that's exactly what I did, and I have no regrets about that; but also because this volume has such a charming variety of pieces in it, as opposed to Volume 1's potentially intimidating series of fugues. There are a few fugues in Volume 2: Just enough for Junior to try out and realize that there isn't anything to be intimidated about. They represent their own technical challenge, but it's not one that can't be overcome, and the music rewards the effort. In learning the pieces in Volume 2, Junior may even realize--as I did--that there is an elusive, yea, indescribable "something" about Rimsky's fugues, and after playing a number of fugues by Shostakovich I'm all but convinced that this "something" applies to Russian fugues in general.

I'm almost embarrassed to share my description of this "something," because I half suspect that a mild case of synesthesia comes to bear on it, but here goes: Russian fugues, as I first learned to love them in the works of Rimsky-Korsakov, seem to me filled with a muted glow, a gentle happy-sad dark-light chiaroscuro of emotion and harmony and tone color-- like a night in the high latitudes where the darkness is brightened by the aurora; or like a day when the sun lingers low above the horizon, faint and distant, reflecting strange yet beautiful hues up underneath a high canopy of clouds. That's what I see in my mind's ear, or hear with my mind's eye--synesthesia indeed!--whenever I play a Rimsky fugue, which makes Volume 1 precious to me even though I haven't lived with it as long as Volume 2. And when I discovered that same je ne sais quoi in Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, I realized that what Rimsky had revealed to me was not just his own personal, gushy sentimentality, but an essential aspect of the Russian Soul.

Volume 2 begins with a passionate Valse (that's French for Waltz), op. 15, no. 1, in the supremely intimidating key of C-sharp major. That's 7 sharps! So one of the wrinkles Junior is going to get on his brain by learning this piece is the ability to remember to play B-sharp and E-sharp (enharmonically equivalent to C and F). And, if Junior hasn't spent much time playing Chopin waltzes or mazurkas, he will also learn to cope with a couple different kinds of left-hand waltz figuration, either of which can be a challenge for beginners. It's a captivating, 6-page piece, an intellectual and emotional journey, which makes great demands on Junior's technique and expression, but it rewards those demands so richly!

Romance, op. 15, no. 2, is a warm, tender, sentimental number in A-flat (4 flats). It's only two pages long and it's in a relatively easy key, but I probably spent more time working on this piece than the Valse. Why? Because the melody is often in the middle, shared between both hands, and sandwiched between layers of accompaniment played by both hands. Making it come across smoothly and clearly, and keeping the accompaniment properly in the background, is a tremendous challenge that will pay HUGE dividends for Junior's developing piano technique. And it's meltingly beautiful to boot!

The Fugue in C-sharp minor, op. 15, no. 3, is one of the pieces I prefer to skip. It's not that I can't play it; I have gone all through it many times. But on the whole, I think it is of slight merit, suffering from the "repeat the same thing in every key" tendency that I complained about before. And it seems to go on forever!

But then there's a Three-Voiced Fugue in G minor which was perhaps the first fugue I ever played, and my affection for it abides to this day. Its quirky, chromatic subject brings out a forward-looking side of Rimsky-Korsakov, suggesting that he wouldn't have been altogether out of place amid the modern dissonances of the 20th century.

The collection goes on to include an Impromptu in B major, op. 11, no. 1, which begins and ends with delicately pretty music full of that muted glow I've been going on about. The middle part, "molto agitato," is full of sternly serious and courageous sentiments. Op. 11, no. 2, the Novellette in B minor, also alternates between two contrasting ideas, the first "resolute" to the point of being ominous, the second full of playful zest. The resolute idea comes back, suggesting an inversion of 11/1's "sweet-sour-sweet" structure, but at the very end the playful idea brings the Novellette to a triumphant close.

Op. 11, no. 3 is a Scherzino in A major, "vivo e leggiaramente" (i.e., extremely fast and lightly). To this day I only wish I could do justice to this piece, which needs to float weightlessly while moving like a briskly-flowing stream. The "appassionato" central section in F-sharp minor seems to provide the dramatic weight needed to anchor the piece to the ground, lest the wind carry it away. Op. 11, no. 4 is an Etude in D-flat (5 flats), by which time you might be with me in wondering exactly why Romantic composers are so captivated by black-note keys. This "study" focuses on the technical challenges of parallel sixths, which run throughout the right-hand part. Nevertheless it is not just a dry exercise, but a touchingly beautiful piece whose textural monotony is relieved by flashes of harmonic color and clever rhythmic displacements.

Then follow Six Variations on the Theme B-A-C-H, op. 10. To get this joke, which goes back all the way to J. S. Bach himself, you have to understand that in German nomenclature, what we call B-flat is a B, and what we call a B is actually an H. So if you play B-flat, A, C, B, you have a musical symbol for J. S. Bach. And it's also a dandy subject for variations. The first one, which appears to present Junior with more notes than any single pianist can hold down at one time, may teach him or her the use of the middle pedal, between the widely-known sustain pedal (on the right) and damper pedal (on the left): You use the middle pedal to sustain L.H. chords (such as the octave dotted-half-notes repeating the BACH theme over and over) while you're playing the rest of the notes with both hands. Variation 1 is very passionate, with a gentler middle section that to me sounds repressed, perhaps even ominous. Variation 2 (Intermezzo) is very fast, agitated, dramatic; again, with a tensely calm middle section that seems like the pause in the center of a storm.

Variation 3 (Scherzo) skips around playfully, with perhaps a touch of the grotesque; and again, there is something spooky about the contrasting middle section. Variation 4 (Nocturne) depicts a nightscape full of rocking waves, fluttering winds, and frustrated longings. Variation 5 (Prelude) presents a genuinely interesting theme in which the BACH motto is subtly embedded; it then prosecutes a very condensed tonal argument over this theme, moving from a very unstable B minor to G minor and finally back home again. The concluding page of this piece, or perhaps the introduction to the final variation, is a sweeping cadenza requiring three staves and signal use of either the sustain pedal or (more likely, I think) the mysterious middle pedal. And finally, Variation 6 is the "Fugue on theme of J. S. Bach," taking the BACH motto with several bars of extension as the fugue subject, and adding a wedge-shaped countersubject. Of all R-K's variations on BACH, the fugue is the one I have enjoyed playing the most.

After the set of variations comes an Allegretto in C, a very light and delicate piece, much of it in an upper register of the keyboard, and possibly the easiest-to-play piece in the book. The runner up may be the Prelude in G that follows it, except insofar as it requires both hands to play trills; for me, this was the piece on which I first struggled with the challenge of playing trills.

Then there's Prelude-Impromptu in A-flat, op. 38, no. 1, a harmonically and emotively rich little piece full of melodic charm and technical challenges, sure to stimulate Junior to work on his or her fingering. Op. 38, No. 2 is the Mazurka in F-sharp minor, which I played at that high school talent show, comparable (within this volume) only to the opening Valse as to the sophistication of its form and the power of its expression. After this comes a piece called Variations on a Russian Theme, though besides the theme itself there is only one variation; and then the volume ends with Pesenka [Little Song], evocative of the Central Asian reaches of the Russian Empire circa 1901, with an exotic melody over an ostinato (rhythmically repetitive) L.H. part in which Junior will struggle, most likely for the first time, with the problem of playing groups of 3 notes simultaneously with groups of 4. (Hint: "What atrocious weather!")

Volume 1, on the other hand, consists entirely of 14 fugues. In several of them, Rimsky seems to take the subject of a Bach fugue, or something similar, and work out his own solution. Their characters vary from the masculine confidence of the opening Four-Voiced Fugue in C major, to the dancelike gaiety of the Three-Voiced Fugue in G, the Gigue-like Three-Voiced Fugue in F, the crisp brightness and business of the ditto in E, the graceful lyricism of the A-major ditto, and the chromatically weird severity of the C-minor ditto. And yet that dark brightness is always there, working its magic on the pianist's soul and setting the stamp of Russianness on every bar of the music.

The first version of the Three-Voiced Fugue in D goes on for eight engrossing pages; it is followed by a variant half as long. The Three Fughettas are exceedingly brief but extremely Russian in character, particularly the middle one, whose theme I am sure I have heard somewhere in an orchestral work by another member of R-K's "mighty handful" of Russian nationalist composers. The final three numbers in the book are four-voiced fugues in C major, E minor, and G minor, all of them thoroughgoing masterpieces of the form and built on subjects worthy of a Bach fugue. Moreover, the latter two are double fugues (with two subjects): the E minor one introduces its second subject some way into the piece, while the G-minor fugue (yet another on the theme BACH) rolls out both subjects simultaneously.

To learn to play them means to invest as much time in study as in technical practice, to build mastery not only of a complex texture in which both hands are required to execute multiple, complex tasks independently and at the same time, but also of a dramatic structure that must build in intensity until the final, climactic moment. For Junior, this means struggling to build manual strength and agility as well as the mental capacity to focus on multiple layers of complexity, to analyze the form of a piece and apply that analysis to its performance, and finally to master all technical and analytical challenges so completely that they can be pushed into the background of expressing the lyrical, emotional content that is what all these pieces are truly about.

When Junior can do all these things and make a beautiful sound that makes you think of auroras and afterglows and smiling through tears, he or she will really be a musician. None of the pieces in either of these books is really virtuosic in character, and there are other books that will do more to prepare Junior to play dazzling arpeggios, runs, and pyrotechnic displays... but by the time he or she approaches that level, you won't need to worry about Albums for the Young. Meanwhile, if he or she is learning to find real music in books like these, Junior may be better prepared to perform the really hard stuff, not just as showcases for physical skill, but as expressions of the human spirit.

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