Have you ever considered the back stories of the pieces you are playing? This can make a very considerable difference to our appreciation of the music; knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time he wrote a work feeds the imagination and enriches our performance – and all it takes is a little research.

A popular recital piece – and one often selected for diplomas – is Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K 310. Do you know the background to this work? Put yourself in Mozart’s shoes in the summer of  1778. He was 22 years old on tour in Paris with his mother, who was accompanying him. Suddenly Frau Mozart became ill and unexpectedly died there on July 3rd. Since his father, Leopold, had stayed at home, Wolfgang would presumably have been in charge of dealing with the situation. To make matters worse, when he eventually learned his wife had died, Leopold blamed Wolfgang. Knowing this story, we can identify with and bring meaning to the tension, despair and turbulence that pervade the work. If you hadn’t taken the trouble to find out about this, there’s a risk you might miss the point and become preoccupied only with matters of performance – what the tempo should be, how long to make the appoggiaturas, how much pedal to use, and so on.

Another popular choice for diplomas is Brahms’ set of Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces) op. 118. There is a very personal and very touching background story here too.  The set was written in 1893, towards the end of Brahms life. Along with the others sets of short pieces (opp. 116, 117, and 119), these are his final works for the piano. Behind the somewhat bland titles (Intermezzo, Fantasie, Ballade, Romance, Rhapsody, etc.) we find music of great introspection and beauty. Written for Clara Schumann to play in her autumn years these pieces are full of yearning for her and the relationship they might have had. Playing the music without this realisation is to deprive the pianist of this extra dimension. As an aside, for those interested in dated biopics, this short clip from the 1947 movie Song of Love shows the arrival of the 20-year old Brahms to the Schumann household. We can see how smitten Clara (played by Katharine Hepburn) was with Johannes right from the start of their long friendship.

While doing background research on famous works, I have found a lot of inspiration in Stories, Images, and Magic from the Piano Literature by Neil Rutman. Published in 2015, the book was written to “stimulate the imagination of pianists as they study and perform the great works of the piano literature”. It contains a wealth of interesting information in the form of stories, letters and comments from the composers themselves as well as their colleagues and friends, and images such as artworks that inspired the music. I find myself using it as a reference book for tidbits of background information, as well as browsing through it in the odd idle moment.

Böcklin Die Heimkehr 1887

Did you know that Rachmaninov’s Prelude in B minor, op 32 no 10, was prompted by Arnold Böcklin‘s painting The Return? Neither did I, until I read it in the book. The author tells the story of pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, a friend of the composer, who had guessed this – only to have it confirmed by Rachmaninov himself. Here is Moiseiwitsch recounting the episode.

Christmas Prize Draw Competition

I am very happy to announce a prize draw where two lucky winners will receive a hardback copy of Stories, Images and Magic from the Piano Literature  with colour photographs, signed by the author. All you have to do is to identify ten extracts from piano works with the composer and title (not easy!).

Take the quiz here

Answers will be published in the New Year, and the winners will receive their copies of the book shortly afterwards.

If you are taking a diploma, Stories, Images and Magic from the Piano Literature will prove a helpful resource for your programme notes. For further tips on writing notes, follow this link to ABRSM’s resources, and this link to Trinity’s blog.

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