Monday, December 7, 2020

Album for the Young 10

For the first time in a while, I decided to splurge on a recent Bärenreiter sale on sheetmusicplus-dot-com and I ordered this book along with two others. A thin edition of 17 brief, lightweight piano pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, it contains at least two numbers that will be familiar to nearly every piano student who has attained to the intermediate skill level if not lower – one of which is right up there with Chopsticks, Heart and Soul and Hot Cross Buns among pieces the sound of which starts to drive one mad as one spends more and more time hanging around a hallway of piano rehearsal rooms on a music school campus.

Yes, we're talking about that piece: "Für Elise," a.k.a. Piano Piece in A minor, which any number of kids will sit down and play anytime they see an unattended piano, whether they can read music or not. But we forgive it because, once you get past its super-simple opening idea, it's a nice and expressive little piece.

But that's No. 11 in this book. No. 1 is an equally well-known Minuet in G, which is also a well-rounded, finished little piece, complete with a Trio. The main part of the minuet combines a refined, handsome melody with a gentle exercise in playing parallel thirds and, later, sixths in the right hand. Its classically polished style isn't far from that of Haydn, particularly with a couple of muscle-flexing second-beat accents toward the end of the left-hand part. The Trio, really almost a duet, is a nice little flowing number built mainly out of scale runs and broken triads, with just one wide leap that junior might have to work on.

Among the other really noteworthy pieces in this set are the four-page Rondo in C at No. 7, which may become a favorite if the idea of using this book as an "album for the young" catches on; the Sonatina in G at No. 8, whose two movements cover one page each; and the somewhat more full-bodied Sonatina in F at No. 9, which also has two movements, but they're each two-pagers. They offer a good taste of what it's like to play in a classical piano idiom without being outrageously demanding for a young pianist just beginning to dip his toe into the music of the great composers, with contrasting dynamics, articulations, decorative turns, rolling accompaniment figures and chromatic scale runs, among other moderate challenges.

Then there are a couple of two-page pieces to which Beethoven gives the title Bagatelle, which more or less literally means a quaint little trifle, though again his inventiveness within the bounds of a technically easy piece is something that will reward young players who discover it. No. 12 Bagatelle in D begins with a pair of repeated periods, suggesting a theme-and-variations type of structure, but Beethoven doesn't belabor it so much that it loses interest. No. 13 Bagatelle in G minor, with a second theme in E-flat major, spins off into a passage that reminds me of one of Bach's keyboard suites.

No. 14 is Six Variations in F on a Swiss Song, which accounts for three pages altogether. Notable devices of variation that Beethoven demonstrates include introducing a triplet rhythm (Var. 1), dotted figures (Var. 2), a minor-key variant (Var. 3), the melody in octaves over rolling triplets (Var. 4), decorating the melody (Var. 5), and fortissimo octaves contrasting with piano 16th-note runs.

I'm afraid none of the other pieces on this book are anything special, in much the same way Schubert's 11 Ecossaises and 12 Ländler aren't anything special; that is to say, they're very nice little pieces that demonstrate a general grasp of piano writing, and exercise the player in acquiring a general grasp of piano playing, but apart from some superficial charm there isn't anything indelibly memorable about them. These include, in numberical order (skipping the already mentioned numbers): (2) a Ländler in D, all of 16 bars long; (3-4) two German Dances in B-flat, each with a Trio; (5-6) two Ecossaises (Scottish dances) in E-flat, (10) a Piano Piece in C major/minor, with two contrasting sections marked as "cheerful" and "sorrowful"; (15) A theme with one variation titled "St. Patrick's day" a.k.a. Scottish Song; (16) A theme and two variations titled "Folksong from Little Russia," which is what they used to call Ukraine; and (17) A theme and one variation titled "Schöne Minka" or Russian Song. Some of the variations are fine, but they're so brief and there are so few of them that mastering any one of these pieces may not be a sufficient achievement to display at a recital.

Still, I like the idea of presenting this book, and others like it that I've written about on this thread, to ambitious young pianists early enough in their formation as musicians to make a difference when they decide what direction, if any, their musical lives will grow. Maybe, if more of them see performing fine-art music as an achievable and worthwhile path, we will continue to have Van Cliburns – or at least, people like me who still enjoy playing the piano at home most evenings, decades after we last took a music lesson.

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