Month: March 2018






Depending on your tastes, and the lists you choose to look at, George Gershwin’s place in the pantheon of American composers can vary. If you are strictly thinking about art music, that list would be populated by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, Philip Glass, and a few others. If you are thinking primarily about popular music or jazz, that list would include Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and a few others. Included in both lists, though, would be George Gershwin.

Many Americans—and non-Americans, for that matter—would name Gershwin as America’s greatest composer. His place on both of the above lists is due the “crossover” nature of his writing—as well as how he regarded himself. And although there are, in his substantial output, several contenders for the “most beloved composition”—maybe his Concerto (for piano) in F, his large orchestral work American in Paris, his opera Porgy and Bess, or any number of his sixty-some songs—it is likely that Rhapsody in Blue, written in 1924, is his most popular composition.

Gershwin (1898-1937) was born in Brooklyn of Russian Jewish parents. They had emigrated to America to escape the increasing virulent anti-semitism in Russia. Moishe Gershowitz, George’s father, changed his name to a more “American”-sounding Morris Gershwin upon arrival in the U.S. George had an older brother, Ira (born 1896) with whom he would collaborate in a composer-lyricist team for his entire brief life.

Gershwin had no interest in music whatsoever until he was ten years old. His parents had purchased a beat-up piano for Ira to take lessons on in their Brooklyn tenement. Ira had no musical curiosity and was greatly relieved when George, suddenly, took a passionate interest in the new instrument.

Gershwin’s compositional talent first evidenced itself when he started writing songs, at the age of 15, in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley was an actual place—not a metaphorical image—in New York—28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. From the 1880’s until the advent of radio and the phonograph, it was not only the place where music was published, but also where it was composed. The monicker “tin pan alley” derives from the fact that, along this street, one could hear piano music—in those non-air-conditioned days—coming from dozens and dozens of windows along the street—composers coming up with new, hopefully salable, tunes—and the resulting collective cacophony would sound—at any time of day—like the rattling of tin cans.

Gershwin’s first big “hit” as a Tin Pan Alley writer was “Swanee” which was sung on Broadway by the famous singer Al Jolson. Gershwin was 21.

His breakthrough as a classical composer came a few years later with his Rhapsody in Blue. Although in truth, it can hardly be called a classical work. It was originally written for jazz band with piano soloist—it was commissioned and premiered by bandleader Paul Whiteman, and it combines as many jazz idioms as it does classical. Rhapsody in Blue’s first performance was on February 12, 1924, with Gershwin performing with the Whiteman’s band. Whiteman’s idea at the time was to introduce jazz audiences to symphonic music. This special event concert even had a title—”An Experiment in Modern Music.” Whiteman also asked Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert to compose works for the concert.

Gershwin had—I guess it is accurate to label it—an inferiority complex about his compositional abilities, and particularly about his lack of a strict classical music education. This was to haunt him for the entirety of his brief life. An example of why this is true involves the Rhapsody. Gershwin originally wrote the Rhapsody in Blue for two pianos—it was a basic sketch—with all the notes, of course—but still in a rough-sketch manner for two pianos. The composer and arranger Ferde Grofe, who was employed by Paul Whiteman as an arranger, took Gershwin’s two-piano score and turned it into a dazzling quasi-concerto for piano and jazz band. “He transformed Gershwin’s musical canvas with the colors and many of the creative touches for which it is so well known.” After the wild success of the 1924 performance, Grofe went on to orchestrate the Rhapsody in Blue into the lush (and very pleasing) 1942 arrangement that we are all familiar with today.

The Rhapsody in Blue, from its first performance, became Gershwin’s signature piece and the yardstick by which his later successes would be gauged—Porgy and Bess, American in Paris, his “I Got Rhythm” Variations—and a plethora of hit songs—Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, Love Is Here to Stay, Oh Lady Be Good, But Not For Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It, How Long Has This Been Going On, and many, many more. A repeat performance of the Rhapsody at Carnegie brought in mixed, and mostly confusing, reviews—the classical reviewers complained of it being formless and too improvisatory (Gershwin even had a blank page in the score, allowing for the soloist to improvise) and the jazz reviewers complained that it was too rigid.

Such were the musical worlds that George Gershwin had to straddle.

Gershwin died suddenly at the age of 38, the result of a brain tumor. His death at such an early age—like so many other greats before him—always begs the question, what great works of music was the world deprived of through his early departure?

A funny anecdote has floated about for nearly a hundred years regarding Gershwin and his lack of confidence as a “serious” composer. It is said that, upon meeting famous classical composers, he would routinely ask if he could study with them, if they would expand his musical consciousness through rigorous instruction in composition techniques. He asked this of Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Bloch, Ernst Toch, and even Edgard Varese. All of them politely declined. He also asked this of Maurice Ravel. They met at a party when Ravel was visiting New York for the first time. Gershwin asked his question, to which Ravel replied “why would you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?” But when Gershwin met Igor Stravinsky and posed the same query, Stravinsky instead asked Gershwin how much money he had made in the previous year—to which Gershwin replied 100,000 dollars—a fortune at that time—to which Stravinsky said “perhaps I should be studying with you.”

The story may be apocryphal…but it’s so good that it will probably still be told a hundred years from now.

The link below is to the 1959 recording of the Rhapsody performed and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. To say this is a classic recording is an understatement! For decades—to the present day, really—it has been regarded as the paragon of all Rhapsody in Blue performances. I can remember the very day I purchased it when I was in high school. I must have listened to it a hundred times in the first week I owned it! (Later on, it became the greatest example to copy when I was learning the Rhapsody to play with orchestra for the first time myself.) There are other very fine Rhapsody in Blues on YouTube, including one of Bernstein playing, again with his NY Phil, from the 1970’s. But, for me, this 1959 still has everything. It is so exciting, everything is RIGHT about it.

Listen especially to Bernstein by himself at 8:14, and to the lush and beautiful theme at 10:08. Makes you want to fly American, doesn’t it?






There is quite a story behind this “Raindrop” prelude of Chopin. I’ll try to capsulize that story here.

Chopin had contracted tuberculosis at the age of 19. For the next twenty years—until he died—it was his daily companion. Some days were good, many days were bad, some days were horrible. He had moved, permanently as it turned out, to Paris when he was twenty years old. There, he moved in the highest of artistic society—it is astonishing how many great artists of every stripe lived in Paris in the early decades of the nineteenth century—and soon he met George Sand, the novelist, with whom he had a lengthy and volatile relationship.

Sand was already more famous than Chopin. As the author of a number of novels, Aurore Dupin wrote under the nom de plume George Sand. She was extraordinary intellectual, equally sensitive emotionally, masculine in her demeanor (she wore pants and smoked cigars), and easily dominated Chopin. Alarmed at his poor health, one of the first things Sand did was to arrange a trip to the Spanish Mediterranean island of Majorca in order to save his health—or, at the very least, to get his health back to a passable state. This was in 1838, when Chopin was 28 and Sand was 34.

The trip could not have been more poorly thought-out, and the extremely bad weather they encountered—non-stop rain—was just the opposite of their expectations. Majorca was an extremely Catholic island, and because Sand and Chopin were not married, they could not find any place that would except them. They finally did find a place to stay, an abandoned stone farm house out in the middle of nowhere, high on a hill. Chopin arranged for an upright piano—one of the few on the island—to be moved—by oxcart—up the hill to the house. And it was here, during endless monsoon-type rain that he wrote the majority of what were to become his Opus 28 Preludes.

The Preludes themselves are 24 short pieces, one in each of the major and minor keys. Some of them are endearing and simple, some are extraordinary technical challenges.

The story goes that when he was composing the prelude in D-flat major—at night, by candlelight of course, during a storm—he had a hallucinatory vision of demons arising from the inside of the piano during the middle section of the prelude. (The prelude is written in an A-B-A form.)

This was not the only time Chopin had such an experience, by the way. Years later, in the midst of one of his infrequent concerts, he saw demonic figures arising from inside the Pleyel grand piano he was playing. He stopped playing immediately, running off stage, and had to be coaxed by friends to even return and finish his program.

This D-flat major prelude has become known as the “Raindrop” prelude, not only because of the fact that it was written during a rainstorm, but because from the very first measure, Chopin writes a recurring note—starting as A-flat, which morphs to G-sharp in the mid-section, and then returns to A-flat in the concluding section—which, some would say, is like an incessant raindrop. (Just fyi, A-flat and G-sharp are the same sound, just notated differently.)

The “Raindrop” prelude, at four minutes and thirty seconds, is the longest of all 24 preludes. It is also, I would say, the most popular of all the preludes and one of Chopin’s most beloved works overall.

The return trip from Majorca was a nightmare. They were literally fleeing the bad weather—Chopin’s health was deteriorating by the day, he was coughing all the time. Sand finally found a boat that would take them to France—a boat that was carrying livestock—pigs. Chopin and Sand literally had to live and sleep with the pigs in a storm-swept sea all the way back to France. Chopin was near death when they got to the mainland. He had to stay at a seaside town for three months, recuperating, before slowly returning to Paris.

Pretty dramatic story, wouldn’t you say?

EVEN IF we know absolutely nothing about this piece or about Chopin, though, it is perfectly obvious from the first notes that this is high art: elegance—and turbulence—in sound.

Yundi Li is a Chinese pianist. He was, at the age of 18, the youngest person ever to win the prestigious International Frederic Chopin Competition in Warsaw. He was also, in 2015 at the age of 32, the youngest artist ever to serve as a judge in the competition. He resides in Beijing, but has a global career. His repertoire is wide-ranging, but obviously titled heavily toward Chopin. Tiraje and I had the pleasure of hearing him in person and I can say he is a very sensitive and virtuosic performer. His recordings and performances are all highly acclaimed. For many years now, he has simply gone by the name Yundi. I’ll be returning to Yundi playing other repertoire in these posts.






Back in 1963, when I first heard Dusty Springfield’s voice, there was of course no internet and therefore no immediate way of seeing what someone famous actually looked like. But from the moment I first heard “I Only Want to Be With You”, my 12-year old mind just knew that Dusty Springfield had to be beautiful, a knock-out in fact. And as it turned out—I did eventually see pictures of her—I was right. She was stunning. And so was her breathy, sensual mezzo voice.

Dusty Springfield (1939-1999) was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien. Her singing career was built upon a stack of hits from the 1960’s. She was one of the “blue-eyed soul singers”—white artists who sang rhythm and blues and soul music. (The Righteous Brothers would also fit into this category.) She had a decades-long string of hit songs, and ultimately was voted into both the U.S. and U.K. Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Her album “Dusty in Memphis” was awarded the status of being in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine voted this album as one of the best in pop music history.

Springfield had gone from singing in local British folk clubs with her brother Tom to being a member of a The Lana Sisters, a group comprised of three Brit girls, to finally releasing her first single, “I Only Want To Be With You” in 1963. Her brother Tom, you may remember from a previous post on the Seekers, was becoming a well-known pop producer, and he did whatever he could for Dusty at the outset of her career.

But there was no looking back after the success of “I Only Want To Be With You.” With its Phil Spector wall-of-sound horn section and expert backup singers, it set the performance standard for all future Springfield releases. The song was near the top of the charts for four months, selling over a million copies in Britain alone to go gold.

Her 1964 “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, a more laid-back song written by Burt Bacharach, was a very successful follow-up. For me, that song totally saturated the summer of 1964.

The third pillar in her 60’s pop hits triumvirate was “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” from 1966. Written by Italian Pino Donnagio, it had a much more European, dramatic flavor than her earlier songs. Dusty had heard it at the Sanremo Festival—the Sanremo Festival is kind of like the Eurovision contest, and is Italy’s top music competition for new pop music—and really liked the music. With the help of Simon Napier-Bell, who was managing the Yardbirds, they came up with English lyrics.

The song has become her signature song. It is large-scale, to say the least! Full orchestra treatment, many first-rate backup singers, and super high production standards—the song took 47 takes to perfect.  “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” was Springfield’s only number one hit, and has had dozens of covers, many of them in other languages.

Dusty Springfield’s career did not end, of course, in the 1960’s. The aforementioned “Dusty in Memphis” album was produced in 1969. Other successful songs she recorded were “Son of a Preacher Man” (later to be featured in the movie Pulp Fiction)—“What Have I Done To Deserve This?”—and “The Look of Love” (in the James Bond film Casino Royale). Over the years, she teamed up with a variety of artists, from Elton John to the Pet Shop Boys to Carol King to Jimi Hendrix—and many others as well.

Springfield did not have a particularly happy personal life. She was a lesbian and had to hide this, living in constant fear of jeopardizing her career if knowledge of it came out. She had a relationship with fellow singer Norma Tanega for the better part of a decade, but it fell apart. She had a string of relationships during the 70’s and 80’s, none of which were lasting or happy. Near the end of her life, she had an extremely tumultuous relationship with Teda Bracci, an American actress, that ended in physical violence requiring hospitalization for both lovers. That relationship, of course, also fell apart.

In 1994, at the age of 55, Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years later, it took her life.

Dusty Springfield’s 1960’s image is the one most people—certainly including me—will fondly remember. The peroxide bouffant hair, the flowing gowns and heavy make-up, and of course, her heavenly voice! At her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just two weeks after she died, her friend Elton John introduced her by saying, “I am biased, but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been … every song she sang, she claimed as her own.”

That is pretty high—and accurate—praise.

Here are those three favorites of mine:

I Only Want To Be With You







Unbridled Excitement!!

Michel Camilo (born 1954) is a jazz pianist and composer from the Dominican Republic. Born in Santo Domingo, he asked his parents for a piano when he was nine—he had an irresistible urge toward the instrument. He grew up playing classical piano music, and achieved some local notoriety by playing as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra at the age of 16. He had heard his first jazz when he was 14—Art Tatum was a strong influence on Camilo’s first efforts in jazz. When the Harvard University Jazz Band played in Santo Domingo, the leader of that group strongly encouraged Camilo to study in the U.S. He spent the late 1970’s at Mannes College and the The Juilliard School in New York. His big break came when he subbed for the pianist in Tito Puente’s band in 1983. It was not long until he had his own career and a long list of great jazz musicians who were more than glad to collaborate with him.

As is often the case with my acquaintance with jazz, I would not have known about Michel Camilo were it not for Tiraje, who has continually played his CDs around our house (and in her car) for many years. I will not forget her enthusiasm following a brief trip she once made to New York. During that trip, she went to a Greenwich Village club—I think it was the Blue Note—to hear Camilo, and ended up sitting only 10 feet from him!

“Caribe” is Camilo’s best known composition, and the vehicle through which most people become acquainted with Camilo’s absolutely phenomenal technique. You DO NOT FORGET Camilo after seeing him play. This particular performance was a live performance in Munich, from 1990. It would serve no purpose for me to point out this or that spot, in this extended version of Caribe, as being especially impressive. His technical abilities are second to none. He is simply impressive whenever he is playing.

Camilo has released 26 albums thus far. The list of musicians he collaborates with, both in the studio and on stage, reads like a who’s who of the jazz world.

If you are not familiar with Camilo, I think you will enjoy this clip very much. And if you are familiar…well, you already know. (I like that whoever uploaded the clip did not cut off the very long ovation Camilo received.)

Photos are of Camilo and the first few bars of Caribe, transcribed as a piano solo. Any takers?







If it has not become apparent yet, my connection to pop music was substantial in my teenage years, which occurred in the 60’s. I remember a particular rainy spring Sunday afternoon when I was thirteen and I was all alone in the house. I already had the habit of playing songs that I liked dozens of times in a row, and on this particular afternoon, it was Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.”

Donovan Leitch was a Scottish folk-singer often compared in those years to Bob Dylan, although he would not have—or aim for—the societal impact that Dylan had. Dylan and Woody Guthrie were his primary influences at the outset of his career—when he appeared as a 20th century troubadour. “Catch the Wind” was Donovan’s first hit single and it did very well in both the British and American charts.

The song has been covered by many great artists, in dozens of enchanting renditions. But none of them capture the innocence, sincerity and simplicity of Donovan’s own version, in which his guitar and harmonica perfectly complement his gentle voice.

As the 60’s progressed, Donovan abandoned his roots for what became known as “flower power” music. Flower power music was characterized, in its lyrics, by passive resistance, non-violence, and the use of drugs for enlightenment. “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow” were Donovan songs from this period. They were actually even more commercially successful than his “Catch the Wind.”

But for me, when I think of Donovan, it’s all about “Catch the Wind,” a song of simple longing.

Here are the lyrics:

In the chilly hours and minutes
Of uncertainty, I want to be
In the warm hold of your loving mind

To feel you all around me
And to take your hand along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I want to hide a while behind your smile
And everywhere I’d look your eyes I’d find

For me to love you now
Would be the sweetest thing ‘twould make me sing
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind
For standin’ in your heart
Is where I want to be and long to be
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

Hope this brings back a good memory for many.

Just for comparison, I want to also link to a live BBC performance that Donovan gave in 1972. For “Catch the Wind” aficionados, you’ll note that he is singing at a slightly slower tempo than the 1965 release—which for me, makes the performance even more interesting than the original.







A couple of months ago, I posted a summary of the Franco-Flemish era in music history (Music I Love #168). There, I mentioned that among all the great composers from that two-century long era, the three big names—each representing a high point in compositional ingenuity—were Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lassus. I’d like to feature a work by Ockeghem today.

I also mentioned, in a different post, a memory I have of a professor I had back in my days as a doctoral student, a marvelous teacher and human being, James Riley. I remember the day he discussed Ockeghem in his music history class. He closed his eyes and softly said, “Oh how I love the music of this man!” That was enough to make me want to hear everything Ockeghem composed.

As it turns out, although Johannes Ockeghem (1410-1497) was definitely a major figure, not a lot of his work has survived. Of his works, only 14 masses, 10 motets, and 21 chansons have survived. Of his 14 masses, only 9 are complete; the remaining 5 consist of only a few movements each. This relative scarcity of material only throws into high relief how great a composer Ockeghem was. It would be something like only having a dozen or so works by Beethoven—but we know, of those, there would be enough “evidence” to conclude that Beethoven was the greatest composer of his day.

Details of Ockeghem’s early life are scant. Although he was born in what is now Belgium, his life’s work occurred in what is now France, specifically at Moulins, Tours, and Paris, where he served at Notre Dame. We also know of his valuable skills as a diplomat for the court, as he was sent by Louis XI to Spain to handle very complex negotiations in a dual attempt to 1) dissuade Spain from allying with England against France, as well as to 2) arrange a marriage between Isabella I and Louis’ brother, the Duke of Guyenne.

Obviously, Ockeghem was obviously highly regarded both as a composer and diplomat.

What set Ockeghem apart from others was his writing for four voices, which was then a novelty. Writing for three voices had dominated the Burgundian School, which preceded him. His four-part writing, particularly within the context of impressive vocal counterpoint—different voices all moving simultaneously yet producing an overall extremely harmonious effect—was unprecedented. He extended the activity and range (downward) for his lowest bass part, creating an almost instrumental effect.

Even if one knows nothing of Ockeghem’s technique, one is immediately drawn to the beauty and clarity of his writing.

As a parenthesis here, I think it needs to be said that in order for our 21st century ears to appreciate Ockeghem—and by extension, all Renaissance choral music—a certain kind of mind re-set needs to occur. We need to go back in time to half a millennium ago, to imagine we are in a cathedral which itself is the acoustic instrument that is being played. We have to imagine ourselves away from everything we’ve ever experienced in terms of technologically-produced sound. We must become blank slates.

A funny memory, though, comes back to me even as I am writing this. My attempts at trying to create a “soundstage” in the minds of hearers occasionally falls flat. As is probably obvious, I am an enthusiastic proponent of music from the Renaissance. So, back in the 1980s when I was teaching my Music History class at Sinclair, and we had come to the Renaissance in England, and specifically to William Byrd—one of my favorites—I thought what a GOOD IDEA it would be, while playing the Kyrie movement from Byrd’s Mass in Four Parts, to say everything I just said above—forget all you’ve known, just hear the sounds, imagine you are in a cathedral, etc—and then, to make sure there were no visual distractions, I turned the lights out. Six minutes later at the Kyrie’s conclusion, I turned them back on, thinking about the profound impression Byrd had no doubt made on these music majors…only to discover that about half of them were drifting off to sleep! And those who were still wide awake—unbelievably to naïve me—I had NOT lit a lifelong fire for William Byrd in their minds.

Needless to say, that was the last time I attempted the “lights-off” pedogogical techniqe.

But I do still think it can be effective…given the right listeners.

I hope that no one reading this will have a similar nocturnal response to Ockeghem. His music is sublime, but, as with so many things in life, it requires our attention if any kind of impression at all is going to occur.

If there is a “greatest hit” in the Ockeghem oeuvre, it is his Missa Pro Defunctis. This mass is the first (not just Ockeghem’s first, but THE first) surviving example of a requiem mass—a Mass for the Dead. The five parts which are extant are: Introitus, Kyrie, Graduale, Tractus, Offertorium.


It may be of interest for me to include here the texts for each movement, both in Latin and in English.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem
Exaudi orationem meam
Ad te omnis caro veniet.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord
And let perpetual light shine upon them
A hymn, O God, becometh Thee in Zion
And a vow shall be paid to thee in Jerusalem
Hear my prayer
All flesh shall come before you.



Kyrie, eleison!
Christe, eleison!
Kyrie, eleison!

Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.



Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In memoria aeterna erit iustus,
ab auditione mala non timebit.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord :
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
He shall be justified in everlasting memory,
and shall not fear evil reports.



Absolve, Domine,
animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
ab omni vinculo delictorum
et gratia tua illis succurente
mereantur evadere iudicium ultionis,
et lucis aeternae beatitudine perfrui.

Forgive, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from all the chains of their sins
and by the aid to them of your grace
may they deserve to avoid the judgment of revenge,
and enjoy the blessedness of everlasting light.



Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae,
libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
de poenis inferni
et de profundo lacu.
Libera eas de ore leonis
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum;
Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini eius.

Hostias et preces tibi, Domine
laudis offerimus
tu suscipe pro animabus illis,
quarum hodie memoriam facimus.
Fac eas, Domine, de morte
transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semine eius.

Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory,
deliver the soulds of all the faithful departed
from the pains of Hell
and the bottomless pit.
Deliver them from the jaws of the lion,
lest hell engulf them,
lest they be plunged into darkness;
but let the holy standard-bearer Michael
lead them into the holy light,
as once you promised to Abraham
and to his seed.

Lord, in praise we offer you
Sacrifices and prayers,
accept them on behalf of those
who we remember this day:
Lord, make them pass
from death to life,
as once you promised to Abraham
and to his seed.

Pictures are of Ockeghem and the Ars Nova Copenhagen.






There is a period of time, I believe, in every young pianist’s life, when thoughts of a “career” in music are non-existent and when one is simply experiencing complex music, and your own ability to play it, for the first time. Maybe you are taking piano lessons at your own insistence (as was my case) or maybe your parents thought piano lessons would be a good thing for you (and maybe your siblings). And at some point in this endeavor, you encounter music through which you have that “eureka” moment—an epiphany that “I can actually make music—I am actually doing it!” It may not come instantaneously—though sometimes it does—but nevertheless, there it is: before, you were just playing an instrument, and after, you were making music.

I would guess that this most often happens for many players through some early intermediate repertoire—sonatinas by Clementi or Kuhlau or maybe Beethoven—or some short lyrical piece like “To a Wild Rose” by MacDowell. It could be anything, really, and of course, it would not have to be “mainstream” classical or even classical at all. But for many pianists of my age, Schumann’s Album For The Young was the vehicle for such a dual discovery—the discovery of the wonders of music and the self-discovery that one is actually a MUSICIAN, that one can make music. I can only guess that hundreds of thousands of others have had this same beautiful experience through their acquaintance with Robert Schumann’s Album For The Young.

The Album For The Young is a collection of 43 short piano pieces that Schumann composed in 1848 for his three young daughters, Marie, Elise, and Julie, who would have been 7, 5, and 3 at the time. He wrote the Album For The Young as an introduction for them to piano playing. According to Schumann, numbers 1-18 were intended for young pianists, numbers 19-43 for slightly older players. There is, in fact, only one difference in the later pieces, and that is the inclusion of some octaves and chords with octaves.

I was in fourth grade and 9 years old when I started learning the Album For The Young. From the marks in my score—which I still have and on which one can clearly see it is the property of BOB R, printed in large letters—it looks like I played just about all of the 43. It would be meaningless (except to pianists) for me to recount my favorites among them. And in truth, it would be difficult to separate them out into two groups, favorites and non-favorites.

But the marvelous thing about these pieces is that, because one is so attracted to the music, and because you are so thrilled that you are actually playing this beautiful music, you don’t realize you are subliminally learning about music and music performance. I will always be grateful to the Album For The Young for teaching me:

• the importance of phrase-shaping
• common phrase structures, especially short-short-long phrase groupings
• establishing an appropriate dynamic balance between hands—the melody is now in the RH, now in the LH
• establishing an appropriate balance when faced with a passage of alternating notes, one of which always stays the same and one that changes
• voicing and prioritization– melodies are most often on top in the right hand, but not always, so one must prioritize at all times
• subito dynamic changes – suddenly loud or soft – the importance of dynamic variation as a continual principle
• pedaling when the harmony changes
• the presence of form in music: Album For The Young forms could hardly be simpler, most always A-B-A – but it is always apparent that there IS some kind of form; #27 is a Little Study in Canon Form, #40 is a Little Fugue
• articulation differences, the absolute importance of legato and staccato to the success of a piece; legato and staccato often quickly juxtaposed
• grace notes – I think these were my first grace notes
• tempo indications – what DO those Italian words mean? Guess I’ll need to look them up in my music dictionary…
• interpretative challenges for the young player – what DOES one do to reflect sorrow in #16 First Loss, how DO you make the farmer happy (as opposed to boring) in #10 Happy Farmer?
• there are even bits of music history: just as Schumann would later do, in nicely imitating Chopin’s style in his Carnaval, he imitates Mendelssohn’s Songs-Without-Words style in #28 In Memoriam November 4th, 1847, which an asterisk tells the player, was the day Mendelssohn—Schumann’s good friend—died

Here are the 43 short pieces of the Album For The Young:

1 Melody
2 Soldier’s March
3 Humming Song
4 Choral
5. A Little Piece
6. The Poor Orphan
7. The Hunting Song
8. The Wild Horseman
9. Folk Song
10. The Happy Farmer
11. Sicilienne
12. Knecht Ruprecht
13. May, Sweet May
14. A Little Study
15. Spring Song
16. First Loss
17. Roaming in the Morning
18. The Reaper’s Song
19. Little Romance
20. Rustic Song
21. (untitled, but based on a tune from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio)
22. Roundelay
23. The Horseman
24. Harvest Song
25. Echoes from the Theatre
26. (untitled)
27. A Little Canon
28. In Memoriam 4 November 1847
29. Strange Man
30. (untitled)
31. War Song
32. Sheherazade
33. Vintage Time, Gathering of the Grapes
34. Theme
35. Mignon
36. Italian Sailor’s Song
37. Sailors’ Song
38. Wintertime I
39. Wintertime II
40. Little Fugue
41. Norse Song
42. Figured chorale (an elaboration on #4 Choral)
43. New Year’s Eve

I apologize for the probable limited appeal of this post—pianists or those who have taken piano lessons will inevitably be those to whom this post speaks. Although there is, for me and for many other pianists, an element of “memory lane” involved with the Album For The Young, my primary reason for posting it is that every single one of these pieces is of such quality—some lovely, some energetic, some languorous, some propulsive—that they will always appear to me—as they are in actuality—great works of music, simply presented. This is music I love.

I’m including two links. The great Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda’s rendition, as well as that of Australian Alan Chan. Chan is not as artistic as Badura-Skoda, but his audio is overlaid with the physical score, making each piece easy to follow, measure by measure.

Robert and Clara Schumann had eight children. The photo, from 1854, is of six of them, the three girls for whom TAFTY was written being the oldest.

Badura-Skoda – click “Show More” for the exact timing location of each piece:

Alan Chan w/score:







I can’t remember exactly which class I was in at Juilliard when I first heard the music of Edgard Varese. But I do remember how intrigued I was with his music from the instant I heard it. It’s the kind of music that makes you stop whatever you’re doing, tilt your head to get the best listening angle, and try to discern WHAT this is you’re hearing—this music that is so different than everything else in your experience. (Which was certainly true for me at that age.) There can be no getting around the centrality of Varese to “modern” music. Varèse saw potential in using electronic media for sound production, and his use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the “Father of Electronic Music.” The writer Henry Miller called Varese “the stratospheric colossus of sound.”

Varese (1883-1965) was a French composer who spent most of his life in the U.S. There was clearly a genetic element to his musicality—his first cousin was the renowned pianist Alfred Cortot. During his youth, he studied with a number of well-known composers, including Albert Roussel, Vincent d’Indy and Charles Widor. He was very definitely “into” music of his own time and, while living in Paris, befriended Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Feruccio Busoni, and Richard Strauss.

Although he tried to enlist in the French army at the outset of World War I, he was exempted for health reasons, and soon moved to America. He was a continual habitué of Greenwich Village cafes, where he talked with enthusiasm about the most cutting edge music—electronic music. He had become friends with two individuals, Maurice Martinot and Leon Theremin, who were actively creating instruments that would create electronically-produced sounds. Over the course of the next forty years, he would become increasingly celebrated as the living pioneer of music AS sound.

In addition to his affinity for electronic music, Varese was also the first composer to write for percussion ensemble, and to use the percussion ensemble as a “laboratory” of sorts for examining timbres, rhythm, resonance and what he called the “spatial characteristics” of music.

Varese’s father had been a scientist and was adamantly opposed to his son’s becoming a musician, feeling that science was Edgard’s true calling. It may have been the scientist in Varese that coined the term “organized sound” in reference to his own musical aesthetic. His conception of music reflected his vision of “sound as living matter” and of “musical space as open rather than bounded”. He conceived the elements of his music in terms of “sound-masses”, likening their organization to the natural phenomenon of crystallization. In reply to those who could not—or would not—relate to his music, Varèse said that “to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise”, and he posed the question, “what is music but organized noises?”

A couple of experiences Varese had as a young man are illustrative of his future philosophy:

“When I was about twenty, I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my gropings toward music I sensed could exist. Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński, the Polish physicist, chemist, musicologist and philosopher of the first half of the nineteenth century, defined music as ‘the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.’ It was a new and exciting conception and to me the first that started me thinking of music as spatial—as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually made my own.”

And, while Varese was still in Paris, he had another pivotal experience during a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Salle Pleyel. As the story goes, during the scherzo movement, perhaps due to the resonance of the hall, Varèse had the experience of the music breaking up and projecting in space. It was an idea that stayed with him for the rest of his life, that he would later describe as consisting of “sound objects, floating in space.”

Varese wrote less than twenty works. Together, they last less than three hours. Yet he has been recognised as an influence by many major composers of the late 20th century. Frank Zappa said that he decided on a career in music when, as a young man, he first heard Ionisation. It was the first album he ever purchased.

Ionisation is written for 13 percussionists and piano. The “ionisation” refers to the ionisation of molecules, and features the expansion and variation of rhythmic cells. The work was first recorded in 1930, when Varese was 47. The liner notes from that LP still serve as a good summary of the work:

“Ionisation is built on a most sensitive handling and contrast of different kinds of percussive sounds. There are those indefinite in pitch, like the bass drum, snare drum, wood blocks, and cymbals; those of relatively definite musical pitch, such as the piano and chimes; those of continually moving pitch, like the sirens and ‘lion’s roar.’ It is an example of ‘spatial construction,’ building up to a great complexity of interlocking ‘planes’ of rhythm and timbre, and then relaxing the tension with the slowing of rhythm, the entrance of the chimes, and the enlargement of the ‘silences’ between sounds. There are suggestions of the characteristic sounds of modern city life.”

I am not, by the way—lest anyone should think—posting Ionization as a “music education” post–as in “here’s something important that happened” in music history. I was an unwilling adherent of “modern” music when I was 23 and first heard Ionisation—I was very much stuck in a nineteenth century rut. But strangely enough, when I first heard it—and Density 21.5 and Octandre and other Varese—I regarded them—and still do—as interesting and enticing experiments in sound.


#208 TEO PEI SHAN (1998-2016)


TEO PEI SHAN (1998-2016)

Heart-breaking and heart-warming inspiration…

I would not be surprised if you have seen this video, which is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming. It is a collage of Teo Pei Shan’s piano playing, the Singaporean girl who had a rare congenital disease that kept her locked inside the body of a baby. The affliction is called Sanfilippo disease, and is technically known as Mucopolysaccharidosis Type III. It is extremely rare, affecting—and limiting—the growth of bones, organs and the central nervous system.

As can easily be imagined, the life of this young woman—she died two years ago, just short of her eighteenth birthday—was simply an unending succession of illness and operations. She could not walk, she could not breathe on her own, and as you will see in this video, her physical growth stopped when she was less than three years old. Her death was a release for her and for her brave parents.

Teo Pei Shan was a little girl, afflicted with a torturous disease that could have only one outcome, and yet she felt COMPELLED, in her brief life, to answer the call of music. Her parents relate that she had always had an affinity for music, and she wanted to learn to play piano. One can only wonder how many hours it took for her to learn her Moonlight Sonata at 5:58. And—it is very clear—at the Elgar duet (11:12) that hers was a musical mind at work.

I have had this video clip in my Music I Love blog possibilities folder for months, debating whether or not to post it. I really should not have delayed. It is an important video to see. The story is one of the most inspiring I have seen—a testimony both to the perseverance of the human spirit and to the power that music has over us.

I guess I’ll just leave it at that, and let everyone react in their own way to Teo Pei Shan. I’ll be back tomorrow with some 20th century music.






An old memory and now a new one…

Lightening up a bit from yesterday’s lengthy post…These are two songs that can both be described as dreamy and unembellished, two songs of teenage girl longing. I find both of them attractive. One is old, one is new, but they are both cut from the same cloth.

I think you have to be of a certain age to know who Shelley Fabares (born 1944) was. She played “Mary Stone”, the daughter in the Donna Reed television show for most of her teenage years, which would have been 1958-1963. The Donna Reed show was one of those shows—along with Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver—that are now sometimes mocked as having been out of touch with reality, shows that presented an all-white, everything-is-wonderful, let’s-forget-there-ever-was-a-world-war, 50’s and 60’s portrait of American life.

While the observation is true, the same kind of observation could be made for many—most—other facets of American life in that time period, it wasn’t just television. Those television shows were selectively showing a certain slice of life—all at the behest, of course, of their advertisers. So, for me, it’s easy to cut them some slack. And out of some of these shows came some really nice music! (I’ll be posting some of my favorite Ricky Nelson sometime soon.)

One of these nice musical happenings came in the form of “Johnny Angel”, sung by Shelley Fabares. It did not take long for the studio heads to discover that Fabares could sing as well as act. I was in fourth grade when “Johnny Angel” was released, and it was impossible not to fall in love with her—a beautiful older woman of eighteen! The song is an expression of a teenage girl’s romantic longing for a boy who doesn’t know she exists, to the point where she declines other boys’ propositions for dates because she would rather concentrate on the boy she loves. I remember so well how the four-fold, falling repetition of the song’s opening line affected me. Fabares sweet, dulcet voice was the perfect vehicle for the lyrics. The song zoomed to the number one spot on the charts.

After Donna Reed, Fabares went on to be Elvis’ romantic partner in three of his movies—Girl Happy, Spinout, and Clambake—more than any other actress. She also played Christine opposite Craig T. Nelson on Coach. “Johnny Angel” remained her only venture into pop music, but what a success it was.

Driving home one night and listening to All Things Considered just about five years ago, I heard a segment on the show about a young singer named Rachel Zeffira. She is a Canadian singer and composer who now lives and works in London. She has a classical background in voice and organ, and currently conducts the Capital Children’s Choir in London, a renowned choir that she conducted in Rome for Pope John Paul II. Together with rocker Faris Badwan, she also formed the punk band Cat’s Eyes. As you can see, her musical career thus far has been eclectic, to say the least.

Her first CD release was The Deserters, ten of her own songs recorded at the Abbey Road studios–which was the occasion for the ATC interview. I liked her voice so much on first hearing that I bought The Deserters right away. “Front Door,” from the album, is so reminiscent of “Johnny Angel” that I thought I would include it here to complement “Johnny Angel.” The lyrics concern a young woman impatiently waiting for the arrival of her love—who has been away at college?—at her front door. Zeffira is truly a multi-talented young woman–she plays nine instruments, including a variety of percussion instruments–and she is playing every instrument you hear in “Front Door”. She produced the album as well.