Learning Pieces

The Mysterious Ending of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy

Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, is one of his most popular and accessible works for the piano. It may surprise you to learn that Mozart left it unfinished (his manuscript stops on a dominant 7th chord in bar 97), and that the ending we all grew up with was probably finished by August Eberhard Müller. Scholars believe Mozart might have intended to write something else in conclusion, possibly a fugue, but mystery still surrounds his plans for the work. The idea of a fugue is a distinct possibility as there is a precedent, the Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, K. 394, written around the same time (1792). Here it is (with rolling score) played by Gianluca Cascioli in a performance that shows great attention to the composer’s articulation markings but without sounding at all dry or pedantic. If you are looking for an interesting alternative to a Bach Prelude and Fugue, you might want to consider this piece. Returning to the D minor Fantasy, many listeners are startled to hear what Mitsuko Uchida does at the point Mozart left off. Rather than finish with the traditional ending (we can’t be 100% sure it was by Müller, but we know it wasn’t by Mozart), she feels justified in coming up with her own ending. And fascinating it is too (listen from 5:50)! If you would like to delve further into the story of the D minor Fantasy, Ephraim Hackmey’s thesis is well worth reading. I have made my own walkthrough of the piece for the Online Academy, giving suggestions for pedalling, articulation and practice. Here is a short excerpt, focussing on the Adagio. Click here to view the complete video on the Online Academy (requires login or sign-up)

Observing the Score

I remember playing those spot the difference puzzles when I was a kid – where you have to find a number of differences between two images that at first glance look the same. With a little perseverance and a canny eye, it is a satisfying pastime. Perhaps this is a good thing for encouraging an essential skill for musicians – the ability to really observe what is there in the score. I am thinking of those pieces where a passage comes back again, not identically but with small variations. Two such examples come immediately to mind – of diploma repertoire that I teach regularly, where students often go astray stumbling over the notes. The cause of the stumble is not necessarily a technical error, rather a lack of clarity and perception about the structure of the music and the changes from one similar spot to another. Is the solution to practise the places more until they finally fall into place, or to sit away from the piano with a score making notes about the differences? Brahms Intermezzo in A, op 118 no 2 In Brahms op 118 no 2 we find several examples of developing variation technique, where returning material is subject to change. The changes create contrast with what has gone before by embellishing a certain feature for emphasis, or providing a change of texture or mood. Look at the first version of this ending (bars 6-8), where Brahms arrives in the dominant key of E. Notice there is a separate note stem for the top line (RH stems up), implying the top line is perhaps a little more important: The next time we find this ending (bars 14-16), we discover this stem has been […]

Q&A: Pedal in Brahms Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7

Continuing with my occasional Q&A series, a reader wrote in with the following query about Brahms’ Intermezzo in A minor, op 76 no 7, currently on the ABRSM Grade 8 syllabus. I am a teacher and I would be grateful if you could help me with a pedalling query regarding the above piece. It is a current Grade 8 List C option. In my experience, I have learnt that it is fine to pedal through rests in Romantic music. Evidence to support this appears in the introduction notes in another Brahms volume, Seven Fantasies Op.116 where the author says ‘pedalled passages often contain rests……though illogical, this convention is acceptable’ (Ferguson, 1985). However, the current ABRSM Teaching Notes seem to suggest that the pedal should be lifted for the quaver rests eg. in bars 9 and 11 (Grade 8, 2017-2018, p.41). I have tried this, and at the increased speed of minim 60, I find this fussy and awkward, potentially spoiling the line. Is it acceptable to pedal through and just do a quick change on the first note of the quaver groups for each change of harmony? I am also doing two light pedal changes in a row for the RH A quaver and C crotchet slur in bar 9 for example, to relieve any clashing of the G sharp to A semitone. I am lifting and stopping the LH in bars 10 and 12 for the rests in the bass clef. Pedalling is a very personal thing, and very much open to experimentation – even when marked in the score by the composer. Conventional pedal markings cannot take into account depth of pedal depression, or vibrating the pedal to clarify the texture. Pedal markings even […]

Chopin’s Sostenuto in E flat

A banker by profession, Émile Gaillard was a friend of Chopin, and in his youth apparently the master’s best student. It is thanks to this association that we have two works by Chopin that he might otherwise never have written – one of which could so easily have got thrown away in the bin. More about that later… There was a chance the Mazurka in A minor Chopin wrote for Gaillard might have remained a manuscript dedicated as a souvenir but it ended up being published in 1841. The publication did not get off to an especially auspicious start. It was originally given the opus number 43, but it turned out that had already been assigned to the Tarantella; nowadays the Mazurka “À Émile Gaillard” is known, somewhat unglamorously, as the Mazurka in A minor, KK II b No. 5. For me it’s a very nostalgic piece, and I especially admire the lovely B section with the RH in octaves and the way it ends on a long RH trill. Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy. For the score, follow this link  Sostenuto in E flat When the ABRSM brought out its new piano syllabus earlier this year, I was delighted to discover a piece of Chopin suitable for the intermediate player, the Sostenuto in E flat, set for Grade V. Since there are very few “easy” works of Chopin, it struck me this was going to be a big hit with candidates. But where did this piece spring from – what is its background? Imagine being an administrator at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1940s, one day sorting through a stack of musty old books in the corner of a library store room. By mid afternoon you’ve catalogued several, and your […]

Mozart’s Shorter Piano Pieces

A volume that is in almost constant use in my studio is the shorter piano pieces by Mozart in the Henle edition. It contains the tiny pieces Mozart wrote as a child, as well as the Rondos, Fantasies, and other pieces that don’t fall into the sonata or variation categories. All of them are fascinating, and the volume includes some real gems that pianists don’t seem to know. For the Henle Urtext edition, follow this link Among my very favourites is the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, a personal and profound work full of wonders. The magisterial performance of Daniel Barenboim I once owned on LP record still haunts me, but I cannot seem to find it anywhere. Here is Murray Perahia’s equally beautiful performance, and I hope it inspires you to include this piece in your repertoire. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is known that Mozart had a great sense of humour. In one of his most tragic pieces, the finale of the C minor piano concerto, K 491, instead of writing repeat signs in the conventional manner, he wrote a little smiley face that looks back to where he wants the players to return. The autograph is in the library of the Royal College of Music, London, and when I was a student there I was given the rare privilege of handling the score (yes, I did have to wear gloves). Mozart also wrote a funeral march – as a joke. One of his students, Barbara Ployer, was a fine pianist but apparently did not enjoy her counterpoint studies with him. In order not to discourage her, he wrote a very short piece entitled Marche Funèbre del Signor Maestro Contrapunto, K 453a, in […]

A Bar at a Time

When I was going through the early grades myself as a lad, my teacher would instruct me to learn my new pieces bar by bar, and with each hand separately. I’m not sure how much I obeyed her when I was home alone though! I really do believe that if we teachers expect our students to practise in a particular way, we need to hear that practice in lessons – or there is little incentive for them to do it. It doesn’t have to take much lesson time – hearing just a bar or two, with words of encouragement and suggestions for improvement (if necessary) is all that is required to help them along in the learning process. I am very happy to announce that we’ll be adding further works to our  Online Academy articles and worksheets on the new ABRSM syllabus, beginning with a selection of pieces from the early grades. The format is somewhat similar to the other study editions I have previously published, featuring text, musical examples and short embedded video demonstrations (as well as video walkthroughs) designed to help teachers and players in the learning process. Naturally, there are detailed practice suggestions suitable for the grade. Bar by Bar – Plus One One of the practice suggestions I use in my worksheets is working in small sections, and a bar is a neat unit. Here’s how it works. In Bar by Bar Plus One we work one bar at a time. If we do this by stopping on the first beat of the next bar, the note(s) we end on will be the same note(s) we start on when we move on to the next bar. When we form good habits at […]

Pedalling the Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven wrote the Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor (Quasi una fantasia), Op. 27, No. 2 in 1801, dedicating it the following year to his pupil, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The title “Moonlight” was given not by Beethoven, but by poet Ludwig Rellstab; even though Rellstab dreamed this up five years after Beethoven’s death, his nickname stuck. At the start of the first movement, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustaining pedal throughout the whole movement, so that the strings are never damped. Above the opening bar, Beethoven instructed “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini” (the entire piece should be played with the greatest delicacy and without mutes), followed by another direction between the staves “semper pp e senza sordini.” “Senza sordini” is an instruction to play “without mutes,” or with the dampers raised off of the strings – or, in other words, with the pedal down. Beethoven must have meant something important by this, since he felt it necessary to give the same instruction twice. On the pianos of Beethoven’s time the sustain was shorter than the pianos we have today, and this effect surprisingly subtle. Obeying Beethoven’s marking literally on a modern piano, with its much longer sustain, produces chaotic and immediately unacceptable results. However there are ways of pedalling artfully that recreate the type of effect Beethoven was after. I’ll show you in a minute how to produce an aura around the sound, obeying the spirit if not the letter of Beethoven’s instructions. But first listen to Matt Bengtson demonstrating the opening on a fortepiano: Beethoven would have remembered a day, not so long before, when pianos were equipped with a handstop that lifted the dampers away from the strings. […]

Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (Op. Post.)

We’re delighted to announce a new Annotated Study Edition and Online Academy walk-through of Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. Dedicated to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”, the work was not published until 1875. Two different versions of the score exist, with the Henle Urtext being the most commonly accepted. The Nocturne has an illustrious history. It was played by Holocaust survivor Natalia Karp for a Nazi concentration camp commandant, who was so impressed with her playing that he spared her life. It was also featured in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. The work is included in the ABRSM Grade 7 examination syllabus, and while one of Chopin’s more accessible pieces it still poses several challenges even for accomplished pianists. Our edition and walk-through feature detailed footnotes and practice worksheets designed to assist in tackling everything from balancing the opening chords, creating beautiful trills, shaping the left hand melodically and managing the fiorature in the coda. Annotated Study Edition The Annotated Study Edition is a downloadable, printable PDF featuring the following content: Introductory notes and Urtext score Annotated score with footnotes and QR codes linking to practice worksheets and online videos Four practice worksheets with detailed exercises and numerous video demonstrations focussing on specific areas of the work such as the opening chords, left hand accompaniment and the coda The study edition is available for purchase and download via our eBook store either as a stand-alone publication or as part of one of our bundles via the following links: Annotated Study Edition Annotated Study Edition bundle (includes four current Annotated Study Editions and ongoing updates) Practising the Piano & Study Edition bundle (includes all four volumes of Practising the Piano […]

How to Analyse: Mozart K283

Players who have made some sort of preliminary effort to understand the shape and structure of the music they are about to learn before they rush to the piano tend to learn it quicker and more thoroughly than those who allow the musical design to seep in unconsciously as they learn the piece phrase by phrase from start to finish, repeatedly playing the piece through over time. I consider it essential to have a clear mental map of any piece of music we learn, especially if we plan to memorise it, in advance of ingraining muscular habits at the keyboard.  It should be obvious that while some background in theory is extremely useful when it comes to playing an instrument, not everyone who is capable of playing advanced piano music has had the benefit of a formal education in music theory and harmony. I would like to offer a taste of what I have come to call “quick and dirty analysis” as an example of how to approach analysis freely and personally without too much textbook theoretical or harmonic knowledge. Quick and dirty analysis is something you can do at the keyboard by exploring the music according to the shapes and designs that you notice and that are meaningful to you. Pretty much anything you notice is fair game, and can help you create a mental map of what is going on on the page. In this post you will find a short video of me doing a quick and dirty analysis of the opening few bars of Mozart’s G major Sonata, K283, at the piano using a stream-of-consciousness approach that I think most people could do themselves if given some gentle encouragement (I am assuming anyone who approaches this piece will […]

How to Analyse Music – Part 1

Why is it important for us pianists to analyse the music we play? Surely analysis is an academic activity that belongs in a classroom? When we dig below the surface to discover how a piece of music is built, we search for its form and structure, and what makes it tick. This helps us not only appreciate the music more, but also helps us to learn it deeply and thoroughly. When we take a bit of time and trouble understanding the shape and structure of a new piece before we rush to the piano to play it, we find not only can we learn it more quickly but we also retain what we have learned over time. Analysis is also absolutely essential for secure memorisation. Despite the importance of analysis, I have noticed how unwilling many players are to spend a chunk what little practice time they have away from the piano. Practice is only meaningful to them when they are making sounds, it seems. Others are scared of analysing, especially if they have not had the benefits of a thorough musical education. The good news is there are many different ways to analyse music, and you don’t have to get bogged down in complex methods (such as Schenker) to find deeper meaning in the music you are playing, and to benefit from the endeavour. Analysis does not have to be textbook, it can be very free and very personal. Whatever you notice about the music is fine and you can see it from many different – and equally valid – angles. Last week I offered two mind maps, one of an elementary piece created (with a little help) by an 8-year old, the other of a more advanced piece done by an adult. Each of these is a type […]