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  • Thanksgiving Thoughts from a Pianist Composer THANKSGIVING THOUGHTS FROM A PIANIST COMPOSER  Like Franz Liszt, Ignace Paderewski, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, the English pianist Stephen Hough is a concert pianist who not only plays an exhaustive repertoire ...
    Posted Nov 26, 2013, 7:11 AM by charles billington
  • NIKOLAI MEDTNER: THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT UNKNOWN COMPOSERS? NIKOLAI MEDTNER: THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT UNKNOWN COMPOSERS?        The widely accepted short list of great twentieth century Russian composers consists of Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff.  It is time to ...
    Posted May 28, 2013, 5:11 PM by charles billington
  • The Case for Gerald Finzi THE CASE FOR GERALD FINZI WHEN SPRING IS DELAYED                      Many British composers from the first half of the twentieth century are ignored nowadays in the United States. The major symphony ...
    Posted Mar 29, 2013, 2:37 PM by charles billington
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Thanksgiving Thoughts from a Pianist Composer

posted Nov 25, 2013, 1:51 PM by Aaron Maass   [ updated Nov 26, 2013, 7:11 AM by charles billington ]



Like Franz Liszt, Ignace Paderewski, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, the English pianist Stephen Hough is a concert pianist who not only plays an exhaustive repertoire of piano works at the highest level but also composes his own works and arrangements to include in his recitals as well.  This ranks him as one of the most unique classical performers of his generation, but his talents do not end there.  He is also a columnist in the London Daily Telegraph and his intelligent musings on a wide variety of topics are always worthwhile.  Sometimes it takes an outsider to offer the best analysis of a different culture’s festivities and rituals, as Hough’s thoughts about the American Thanksgiving shows.  This essay first appeared on his website in 2012.
                                                    Thanksgiving, Willa Cather, and the Soul of America

         “I recently re-read Willa Cather’s My Antonia.  Cather is one of my favourite authors and one of the few who can bring tears to my eyes.  I think that we can understand America much better after reading her, not just because she writes about pioneers and the rich land for which they felt the compulsion to be ‘thankful’, but because she highlights important aspects of the American experience.  One of the common themes she returns to with great fruitfulness is the poignancy of leaving a small community (village, town, city) and moving to a bigger one….and then going back to the old one again as a changed person.  Lucy Gayheart is a late novel dealing specifically with this topic, intriguingly combined with a musical theme.  Simplicity or sophistication; the world of soil and sweat or the subtlety of intellectual and artistic pursuits; salt of the earth or spice in the sauce.  It ends up an analogy of the universal experience of  leaving the parental home, finding our own more ‘sophisiticated’ way of doing things, and then (sometimes too late) realizing that there was wisdom at the old hearth after all.  And yet…all of these emotions are intertwined in Cather with a complex poignancy and searing melancholy.  Nostalgia (a principal “character” in her novels) is not on the stage like Dickens, but instead in the pantry, often unaware of the cause of such sweet sorrow.

          It is common to hear disparaging remarks about the boring Midwest, even (especially) by Americans.  The two coasts are glamorous, their history stretching back in the West to the Spanish missions and in the East to the pre-Revolutionary settlers.  Movies, finance, intellectual pursuits, tourism, museums, government, beaches.  The middle seems dull, conventional and provincial in comparison.  In reality there is something of a foundational significance about the Midwest.  It is the bread basket, the reservoir, feeding not only stomachs but somehow the soul of the entire country.  Its determined, heroic spirit is filled with a goodness which is at the roots of America itself. Cather understood this profoundly and although she lived most of her life in the very centre of New York’s intellectual hotspot, Greenwich Village, she wrote with passion about the heroism of ordinary folk.  Thanksgiving is one of those occasions which even the most confidently, cynically urbane can celebrate without embarrassment-a return to basic values.  Parents teach us to say ‘thank you’ from an early age and it often becomes a habit, a turn of phrase with little meaning.  But Thanksgiving is an annual opportunity to discover once more that gratitude is not only a matter of justice (everything we have in life is a gift) but of joy. 

Dignum et Justus est—it is right to give thanks, and it makes the gift itself more precious.




posted May 28, 2013, 9:14 AM by Aaron Maass   [ updated May 28, 2013, 5:11 PM by charles billington ]




       The widely accepted short list of great twentieth century Russian composers consists of Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff.  It is time to expand the list to four, adding the composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff himself hailed as a genius, Nikolai Medtner.

       Medtner was born in Moscow in 1880.  His family was prosperous, and Medtner grew up in a home that valued art and culture.  While his ancestors were Germans who had settled in the Baltics, Medtner embraced his Russian identity throughout his life.  At the Moscow Conservatory, where his accomplishments were legendary, he studied piano with Franz Liszt’s protégé Paul Pabst and composition with Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev. 

      An initial hearing of Medtner’s works can be underwhelming.  There is a thickness to his scores.  His musical ideas often sound heavy and serious, and he can build tension to very uncomfortable levels, especially in the beginning of some works.  Many pianists (including this writer) are initially intimidated by how difficult many of his compositions are; some of Medtner’s works are virtually unplayable to even the most capable pianists. However, an individual taking the time to become familiar with Medtner and his art – a week or ten days of faithful listening to some selected works would do it – will be richly rewarded.  Medtner is often profound and poignant at the same time, and none of his works could ever be mistaken as a composition by someone else.  The excellent renditions of Geoffrey Tozer in five works from Volume Two of The Piano Works of Nicolai Medtner (Chandos 9153) serve as good examples. The following is a brief analysis of Medtner’s Danza Graziosa, Danza Festiva, Contes #3 in A, Contes #6 in G, and the first and third works in his majestic Sonata Triad.

      The first two works of Opus 38, Forgotten Melodies, are the Danza Graziosa  and the Danza Festiva.  These were written in 1920, right after the Russian Revolution, when the comfortable, urbane culture with which Medtner was so familiar had completely vanished. Yet the Danza Graziosa comes off as a touching reminiscence, with clever syncopations and rhythms whose inspiration could have been anything from street musicians in St. Petersburg to a  folk song from rural Georgia .

     The Danza Festiva dazzles from beginning to end.  The difficulty of the work is only surpassed by its originality.  After the bravura opening theme is played through twice, Medtner (at the 2:10  point in Tozer’s recording) embarks on a disarmingly infectious cantabile, with the left hand playing a dotted-rhythmic 3/4  accompaniment to the right hand’s 4/4 rubato theme.  This creation is one of those Medtner listening moments when one stops what he is doing, tries to figure out what was just heard, and then cannot stop thinking about it for the next few hours. Medtner next takes this  three-against-four motif, doubles the tempo, and asks the pianist to play it again--but with the right hand playing triplets! Welcome to the world of Medtner’s unplayable music. As if to give the hands a rest, the same theme is transformed into a densely chorded Chorale, before ending with a cheerfully dizzying conclusion. The Danza Festiva is one of Medtner’s most brilliant works, as immediately approachable for the listener as it is impossible for the pianist. 

     Medtner’s  Opus 51, Six Contes (Tales) was written in 1927, when he returned to his new home of Paris after visiting his hometown of Moscow, depressingly different under Soviet rule..  The third in A Major and the sixth in G major both show Medtner at his finest as a composer and pianist.  The clever variations of the A major triad in the third Conte and the rhythmic repeated-note figurations in the sixth are impressive, even  upon first hearing, and  are excellent examples of his originality.  Medtner wrote 38 Contes during his lifetime, and these works are also cataloged as Skazkis, Songs, or (by his publisher to boost public acceptance) Fairy Tales.

     Medtner wrote fourteen sonatas for piano, and the Sonata Triad, Opus 11, is a collection of three of them.  The work opens with an inscription from Goethe’s three-part poem The Trilogy of Passion. Its titles reveal the meaning of this triad of sonatas: To Werther, Elegy, and Reconciliation.   Medtner opens the A flat Sonata (To Werther)  with a nonchalant, rather indifferent four-note theme that is posed as an interrogatory, with a baritone-voiced answer soon following. He builds upon this motif, never resolving it satisfactorily, and this beginning becomes a good example of Medtner raising  musical tension levels to unbearable dimensions, complete with sinister, descending chromatics and pounding rhythms.  At 1:30 on Tozer’s recording the tension finally breaks, thanks to a guitar-like triplet rhythm in A flat, and the main theme, with a surprisingly Castilian flavor, bursts forth.  Medtner spends the next nine minutes reshaping and shading this interesting motif with a variety of innovative and very agreeable musical ideas. 

   The third sonata of this Triad  (Reconciliation) is probably the most emotionally indelible composition Medtner wrote.  There is an air of resigned contentment throughout the work, and it very much sounds like the creation of an older gentleman in the late stages of a final autumn, yet Medtner wrote this work at the ripe young age of only 24.   After an engaging 45 second introduction,  Medtner provides one of those I-must-hear-that-again-right now  moments, with the most beautiful musical idea he wrote. It is a sixteen-bar passage in G major, concentrated on a simple three-note (G-A-B) theme, with each phrase repeated in an enchanting (but also haunting) echo in the form of a tenor and soprano duet.  Medtner returns to this spellbinding passage three times in the work, and as one becomes familiar with the piece, it becomes very gratifying  just to wait for it to reappear.  If this sonata has a shortcoming, it is the ending, a collection of brief  musical ideas that the young Medtner seemingly felt he just simply had put in this work, instead of developing them as individual compositions later on.  Be that as it may, this is great music, as profound and touching as anything Brahms or Rachmaninoff wrote, pulling the emotional strings of the listener that other composers’ works rarely even touch.

    There are so many other works worth mentioning.  If Nicolai Medtner is in the team portrait as the greatest of the great unknown composers, it is high time for music aficionados to pay attention to his art, so he can rightly pose with the great composers, and  no longer be “unknown.”

The Case for Gerald Finzi

posted Mar 27, 2013, 11:09 PM by Aaron Maass   [ updated Mar 29, 2013, 2:37 PM by charles billington ]





                   Many British composers from the first half of the twentieth century are ignored nowadays in the United States. The major symphony orchestras often program works by Ralph Vaughn Williams or Benjamin Britton, and occasionally a Gustav Holst composition will appear.  It’s a long wait, however, before something by William Baines, Arnold Bax,  George Butterworth, Gerald Finzi, Ivor Gurney, or Hubert Parry is heard in this country.  Currently much of the United States is suffering through one of the coldest months of March in memory.  Perhaps if chilled American ears were turned to the musical thoughts of Gerald Finzi, it would be easier to find some beauty in the brown turf and yellow grass of this elongated winter, and spring might arrive earlier, at least for a few moments, while we listen.   

                  Finzi was born in 1901. Both his parents were Jewish, his mother German and his father Italian. Young Gerald grew up in a comfortable and prosperous London household.  His father was a ship broker when Britania ruled the waves but died when Finzi was eight years old.  Finzi experienced more loss and difficulty in adolescence,  losing his private tutor and three brothers on the Western Front during World War I.  Like almost all of the British composers of his era, Finzi’s demeanor and artistic expressions were profoundly affected by war. Also like many of them, he found comfort and contentment in the English countryside (hence the label which referred to them as the English “pastoral composers”), eschewing  all aspects of urban life. As a result of his experiences, Finzi became an agnostic, a lifelong pacifist, and an expert in apple growing. His music does not reveal the scars from World War I nearly as much as it does his search for contentment and a reverence for nature.  There is an emotional eloquence to Finzi's works that can leave a lasting impression on the listener.  The three works described below are all good examples of this.

          In 1942 Finzi finished a song cycle based on Shakespearean verse entitled Let Us Garlands Bring.  One of the works is from As You Like It; it is entitled A Lover & His Lass.  The lyrics and Finzi’s motifs deal cleverly with spring, but Finzi’s skill as a composer shows best here in the piano accompaniment.  The piano score does not merely complement the vocalist; Finzi's piano writing blends so well  and responds so empathically to the vocals that the work sounds more like a duet for voice and  piano than a work for voice with piano accompaniment. 

            The third movement of his Clarinet Concerto (1949) is as profound as any of Brahms' compositions for the instrument, especially the hauntingly spell-binding solo motif for the clarinet about two thirds of the way through. This is the kind of composition that stays in the mind of the listener long after its initial hearing. It could have only been written by an individual whose life was shaped by a wide spectrum of profound experiences, both positive and negative,  and who is finally at peace with what these experiences mean. 

          Two years after the Clarinet Concerto's  completion, Finzi learned he was dying of Hodgkin’s Disease and began work on his Cello Concerto, which he completed in 1955. It first aired on national British radio the evening before he died in 1956.  Many consider this to be Finzi's greatest instrumental work, and while it lacks the emotional poignance and eventual serenity found in the Clarinet Concerto, the unmistakable British  swagger which the Cello Concerto conveys, particularly in the last movement, places it squarely in the Downton Abbey  class of  British culture and refinement. 

           Incidentally, if we juxtapose  Mr. Finzi's existence to PBS' Downton Abbey, we can see that our beloved composer at the time was twenty years old, came from a moneyed family, had good breeding, was single, and was artistically inspired by the English countryside.  This is the period when Lady Mary is suddenly widowed and younger sister Edith is still looking for  Mr. Right. Could Julian Fellowes consider writing  Gerald into the script, and have one of the young women enjoy the favor of his company while  his compositions fill the great hall?  The Dowager Countess would no doubt be very moved by young Finzi's artistic expressions, although her toe-tapping for sure would remain under her long skirt. That Cello Concerto would sound phenomenal in the huge foyer......          

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