Practice Tips for Developing a Solid Technique in Piano Performance
Practicing is both an art and a science. Every student of piano performance must remember that their achievement on the instrument will be the direct result of the amount of time and the quality of their practicing.
The art and science of practicing is not just time spent at the instrument but time spent listening to the music the student is working on, studying and understanding the harmonic analysis of the music as well as researching the time period and technical characteristics of the composer of the piece you are working on.
In addition to this, it is advisable for the student to prepare a weekly plan outlining the time spent on specific techniques, repertoire, sight-reading and review of old or previously learned repertoire.
The purpose of technique is to serve the pianist’s imagination and realize his/her interpretive ideas on the instrument. The pianist should be able to have complete control of their fingers. In order to achieve this we have to train them so they will do whatever we want them to do to serve the pianists imagination. Technique and interpretation are interwoven.
Just as technique and interpretation are interwoven, reading musical scores and listening to music are equally important and interwoven. The art of listening to one’s own playing can be acquired first by listening to other pianists. Piano students need to learn to listen to other performances on a deeper level, following musical ideas and subtle nuances which the student may or may not incorporate in their own performances.
Just as technique and interpretation are interwoven and listening and reading are interwoven, understanding music scientifically or music theory and memorization are deeply interwoven. The human mind can best retain things it understands, things that ‘make sense’. If we understand something musically, understand the musical structure of the piece the student is well on the way to memorizing and a solid performance. With this being accomplished the pianist is then able to use their technique to serve their imagination and deliver an inspired performance.
‘Among the numerous miracles of St. Francis of Paola, the legend celebrates that which he performed in crossing the Straits of Messina. The boatmen refused to burden their barque with such an insignificant looking person, but he paying no attention to this, walked across the sea with a firm tread’…Franz Liszt
The story is beautifully captured in Liszt’s music. The calm strength of the opening hymn-like music is throughout the piece pitted against the roaring and crashing of the waves (represented by rushing scales and tremolos), finally emerging victorious in a glorious fortissimo restatement at the end of the piece.
Bartok’s Kossuth, A Symphonic Tone Poem
Kossuth, a symphonic poem written by Béla Bartók in 1903, was written in honor of the Hungarian politician Lajos Kossuth, a hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Bartók’s symphonic poem music tells the story of Kossuth, starting with a portrait of him, recounting the revolution and in the eight movements paints a picture of the Austrians approaching by using a minor key parody of the Austrian National Anthem, the ensuing battle and defeat of the Hungarians.
The music of Richard Strauss had a strong influence on Bartók, in particular his symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben, which literally means a heroic life or a hero’s life. Ein Heldenleben movements are as follows:
1. Der Held (The Hero)
2. Des Helden Widersacher (The Hero’s Adversaries)
3. Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero’s Companion)
4. Des Helden Walstatt (The Hero at Battle)
5. Des Helden Friedenswerke (The Hero’s Works of Peace)
6. Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung (The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation)
Throughout Ein Heldenleben, Strauss employs the technique of leitmotif that Richard Wagner used so liberally, but most always as elements of its enlarged sonata-rondo symphonic structure. With the influence of Strauss in addition to Bartok’s strong nationalistic feeling towards Hungary Bartok later wrote in his autobiography “…It was worth while creating something specifically Hungarian in music.” [i]
Lasting around twenty minutes, Kossuth is in ten movements, as follows:
2. What sorrow weighs on your soul, dear husband? (Kossuth’s wife)
3. The fatherland is in danger
4. Once we lived better days
5. But our plight grew worse
6. To battle
7. Come forth, ye Magyar heroes of true valor
8. …(Theme of the Austrian army slowly approaching)
9. All is over
10. A hopeless silence reigns
The Kossuth premiered in Budapest January 13, 1904 and created a sensation at its Budapest premiere. Bartók’s own program notes for the piece were as follows:
The year 1848 is one of the most eventful in Hungarian history. It was the year of the Hungarian revolt-a life and death struggle of the nation for freedom. The leader, the heart and soul of this struggle, was Lajos (Louis) Kossuth. As Austria saw, in 1849, that the war was going against her, she concluded an alliance with Russia. A crushing blow was inflicted upon the Hungarian Army, and the hope of an independent Hungarian kingdom was shattered-apparently forever. These events serve as the basis for the symphonic poem. [ii]
The Kossuth funeral march is Bartók’s piano transcription of the ninth and tenth movements of the symphonic poem. Bartók indicated in his program notes that “the thematic material beginning in bar 23: is a direct borrowing of the theme of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” [iii]
The Hungarian Gypsy Scale is a name given by different authorities to two different scale forms. The more commonly used of these scales is the fourth mode of the Double Harmonic Scale, it can be formulated by sharpening the 4th degree of the harmonic minor scale to introduce an augmented second.
Scale in Corresponding key of Kossuth:
A: A B C D# E F G# or A B C D# E F G
The thematic material or Leitmotif of Kossuth is derived from the Hungarian Scale and reappears with different variations and represents both Kossuth as well as the concept of Magyar nationalism. Dance rhythms called verbunkos are hybrids of original musical materials, which are derived from diverse ethnic sources, which originated in the seventeenth century and developed into the nineteenth century Viennese classicism described as style hongrois. Verbunkos are regarded as the ‘soul’ of Hungarian/Magyar Music and contribute to the strong Hungarian nationalistic feel of the Kossuth Symphonic Poem. These rhythms include long-short-short-long choriambus, an accented short-long ‘Scotch Snap’ as well as Kuric fourths, which use a rhythmic rebound between the dominant drone and the tonic in the upper voices.
Kossuth Funeral March has an ABA1 form in a minor. An introduction leads into the A section. The Kossuth Leitmotif comes in and is played over the somber double dotted funereal rhythm along with the short short long rhythm of the style hongrois. An ascending sequence with a melodic variation, which is derived from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, is the B section. The concluding A section is a coda, which uses a similar chord progression of the introduction.
Bartók continued to collect, study and do extensive research on Hungarian folk tunes as well as other countries such as Romania, Transylvania and North Africa. His compositions often reflected his research, and Bartók managed to develop a style that was uniquely his own, which was a combination of his ethnomusicology research of folk tunes and rhythms, a virtuosic and percussive technique, which he managed to skillfully incorporate along with the training he received at the Budapest Conservatory. Bartók eventually migrated to New York City in the USA, sadly due to political turmoil of the time, and struggled to earn a meager living with his ethnomusicology research, piano performances, concerts and compositions. His deep respect of humanity life and nature will always be admired. Although, his music received more praise posthumously, Bèla Bartók’s music continues to educate inspire and delight music lovers worldwide.
[i] BÉLA BARTÓK, Lajos Lesznai, 1961, Great Britain J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd Aldine House, p. 28
[ii] Béla Bartók, Piano Music of Béla Bartók, The Archive Edition, Edited by Dr. Benjamin Suchoff
[iii] Béla Bartók, Piano Music of Béla Bartók, The Archive Edition, Edited by Dr. Benjamin Suchoff
II. Ave Maria
III. Benediction de Deus dans la Solitude
IV. Pensee des Morts
V. Pater Noster
VI. Hymne de L’enfant a Son Reveil
VIII. Miserere D’Apres Palestrina
VIIII Andante Lagrimoso
X. Cantique d’Amour
Many innovative concepts are explored in this suite such as constantly changing meters, no key signatures in addition to emphasis on the tritone. Liszt develops these innovations further in his later compositions. Fifty years later Liszt once again returned to the exploration of atonality in his Bagatelle ohne Tonart (Bagatelle Without Tonality).
On the autograph manuscript of Funérailles,Liszt writes October 1849. Liszt indicated it was an elegy written as a tribute to three of his friends who died in the failed Hungarian Revolution. Prince Felix Lichnowsky, Count Laszlo Teleki and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Lajos Batthyany. It was a colossal defeat to the Hungarian people.
Death of Chopin October 1849
The intuitive use of material from Chopin’s heroic Ab Major Polonaise Opus 53 leads to speculation that this piece was more than an elegy to the Hungarian people but also an elegy to his dearly departed colleague F. Chopin.