Optimize Your Piano Practice Time

The Art of Piano Performance

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.

Technique

The purpose of technique is to serve the pianist’s imagination and realize his/her interpretive ideas…

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Toccata BWV 915 by Johann Sebastian Bach

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Toccata BWV 915

The toccata an extensive piece intended primarily as a display of manual dexterity written for keyboard instruments reached its apex with Johann Sebastian Bach in the eighteenth century. Johann Sebastian Bach’s seven Toccatas incorporate rapid runs and arpeggios alternating with chordal passages, slow adagios and at least one or sometimes two fugues. The Toccatas have an improvisational feel to them analogous to the fantasia. Unlike the Well Tempered Clavier, English suites, French suites and other sets, Bach himself did not arrange them into a collection. When JS Bach left Weimar the Toccata at that time was out of fashion. They became in vogue again after his death and were organized into a collection. The g minor Toccata is one of the more obscure of the toccatas and has rarely been performed partially due to the extensive second fugue with its many thorny passages of the contrasting gigue rhythm. However, this Toccata has many fascinating effects. It is one of the only pieces by JS Bach that has dynamic markings of piano and forte.

The g minor Toccata opens with a flourish, which leads into an expressive adagio with an improvisational feel. The adagio is interrupted by a lively allegro in the relative major key of Bb which includes concerto-ritornello passages of imitation and solo/tutti passages. A deceptive cadence leads back into the adagio where it was interrupted and then closes the adagio with a perfect authentic cadence in Bb major. This aspect provides a unity to the different movements of the Toccata. The other striking example of unity between movements is the beginning flourish repeated at the end of the second fugue, which leads into a formal closing of the work.

The extended fugue in a gigue has a subject of an ascending sequence combined with a countersubject of driving triplets. The subject of the fugue has twelve expository entries followed by eleven entries. There are inversions, permutations, combinations of minor with major, which is varied by modulating to the subdominant, then to Eb major and then back to the g minor tonic. The vivacious counter subject of driving triplets provides a symmetrical balance.

To learn more about Fugues please read my other Hub: The Art of Fugue

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Piano Lessons in Boca Raton

Piano Performance in Boca Raton
Piano Performance in Boca Raton

The Art of Piano Performance

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‘St Francois de Paule marchant sur le Flots’ Franz Liszt

‘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.

Franz Liszt: Legend No.2 “St. Francois de Paule marchant sur le flots”

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‘St. Frances of Paola Walking on the Water’ 

‘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.

Many of Franz Liszt’s compositions sprang from religious inspirations. In 1863, he composed his 2 Légendes, a duo of programmatic pieces based on the legends of St. Frances of Assisi and St. Frances of Paolo. The work is among Liszt’s forward-looking composition and considered by some to be the roots of Impressionism.

The second piece of the set depicts the legend of St. Frances of Paolo who, not having any money to the fee, was denied passage on a ferry across the Straits of Messina. Mocked by the ferryman, he throws his cloak in the water and stands on it. Using his staff to guide his way across the Straits, St. Frances arrives ahead of the ferry and its passengers. Though this story served as Liszt’s inspiration of the piece, the end result is a magnificent universal depiction of struggle and triumph. The principal theme is announced immediately at the outset in unadorned octaves, and its emphasis upon the key of the mediant minor foreshadows the impending struggles. Stated again in the tonic key of E major above rippling tremolos in the bass, the theme is presented regally and in full glory. However, as the music progresses, the harmonic underpinnings become more violent and clash against the theme. Throughout the middle portion of the piece, the theme is nearly overwhelmed by the torrent of chords and surging chromatic lines. Following the harshest part of the struggle where unrelenting octaves build to their dramatic outcome, the theme returns in and triumphal splendor. Finally, a brief coda turns the mood solemn, like a prayer of thanksgiving. The principal melody then returns for a final statement in the bass and the piece concludes with heroic ascensions through the tonic triad.

Beethoven’s Tempest

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Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventeenth Piano Sonata
The Tempest
In 1800-1802 Ludwig van Beethoven experienced devastating internal turmoil in trying to come to terms with his hearing loss. To the outside world, his life seemed to be ideal, with his success as a virtuoso pianist and as a successful, sought after composer in Vienna. He gradually began to withdraw from society and friends, however, as he felt it would be detrimental to his successful career as a musician if people found out he was going deaf. People felt he was being misanthropic, yet it was quite the opposite. Beethoven lived in a great deal of solitude and loneliness due to his impending and eventual complete deafness, which would eventually have a profound effect on his spiritual and creative growth as a composer and a musician. The years of 1800-1802 were a transformative period in Beethoven’s life, and marked the beginning of his second stylistic period. As Beethoven’s outer hearing deteriorated, his inner hearing continued to grow.
Beethoven sought treatment in the village of Heilgenstadt in the late spring of 1802 until October of that year. Full of despair over the unsuccessful treatment, he considered ending his life. In a famous letter known as the Heilgenstadt Testament written to his brothers, he wrote “Thanks…to my art I did not end my life by suicide.”
Over and over in Beethoven’s music themes of victory over tragedy abound. In the internal struggle he faced, although his music showed the greatest despair and sorrow, it always transcended into triumphant victory. With that same inner struggle, Beethoven learned to transcend deafness and still be victorious in creating greater and greater masterpieces. During the late 1790s, Beethoven’s music began to show changes, as well as enlargement of form. After the Heilgenstadt Testament, Beethoven expressed dissatisfaction with his compositions and according to Czerny was “determined to take a new path.” [1] The changes included strong links between sonata movements, intensified drama, harmonic instability, motivic elements affecting the larger form, twelve measure structures, registral gaps, recitative and pedal effects.
Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata no. 17 Opus 31 No. 2, written in the somber key of d minor, is reminiscent of a violent storm with periods of calm and peacefulness. This Sonata is based on three different motives, which are then developed and used in different variations throughout the entire first movement, and continue throughout the entire sonata. The Sonata begins with a slow rolling arpeggio marked Largo on a dominant chord of A Major. This ascending arpeggio is the basic idea and the antecedent phrase of the exposition. This arpeggio is the dominant motive of this entire Sonata with an arpeggiated chord beginning the second movement and arpeggiated chords dominating the third movement as well.
Beethoven inner turmoil is clearly exposed in the tumultuous first movement, as well as the striving for inner peace in the impressionistic recitatives. The strong links between sonata movements is shown again as Beethoven uses the idea of the recitatives for the lugubrious second movement. Although the adagio illuminates the composer’s feelings of despair, at the same time shows transcendent spiritual growth with the beautiful lyricism in the second theme group of the Adagio.
Beethoven pushes the boundaries of harmonic instability by delaying resolution in the sonata to the very end of the finale. Beethoven has used the sonata form to support his creative demands instead of him conforming to the sonata form. It is as though the first movement is an introduction and transition for the upcoming finale which will take up in d minor where the first movement left off with the rolling arpeggios on the d minor tonic.
The finale gives way to a feeling of equilibrium with the principal motive of the arpeggio fading away on the d minor tonic. It is in the magnificent finale of the “Tempest” sonata where Beethoven shows victory over the funereal overtones of the Adagio which could be interpreted as a spiritual death and rebirth.
This sonata could be interpreted as Beethoven beginning to come to terms with his impending eventual deafness. The anguish and despair of the Adagio, the rage of the stormy moments of the first movement, contrasting with moments of calmness with inserted recitatives, the ferocious cadences and rhythms of the finale were his way of expressing how he felt about this affliction of deafness while writing the most extraordinary music and not being able to hear it.
Beethoven would live most of his life in a great deal of loneliness and despair with most of his life devoted to the development of his art and creativity. As this sonata was written towards the beginning of his second stylistic period many masterpieces would follow the “Tempest” sonata.

[1] Timothy Jones, BEETHOVEN The “Moonlight” and other Sonatas, Op 27 and Op 31, p. 15
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Chopin’s Musical Biography

Chopin Opus 35, A Musical Biography

Chopin’s Musical Biography & Mastery of Large-Scale Form

Chopin composed a Marché in 1837, stark and unadorned in melody but quite powerful. Opus 35 is built around this Marché and is the foundation of the sonata. Two years after the Marché was written as it was originally called, the sonata became published 1839. The outline of the sonata is:

I Grave/Doppio Movimento

II Scherzo

III Marche funèbre

IV Finale

Beethoven’s Sonata no. 12 op 26 is often thought of as an influence to Chopin’s opus 35. It has a similar construction; the first movement is a theme and variation. The second movement a scherzo, the third movement a funeral march and the fourth movement is a finale of unrelenting sixteenth notes. It is known Chopin played and admired it. Additionally he used it a great deal in his teaching. Many of his students reported working on it. Chopin’s earlier attempt at the sonata was in 1829 with his first sonata in c minor. Haslinger the publisher agreed to publish it in 1829 but later changed his mind. With Chopin’s works now being in demand, Haslinger had it engraved to begin publication. Chopin refused to authorize its publication but learned it was already in distribution in a letter from his father. He had recently made his home in Paris, following an unsuccessful stay in Vienna. Beethoven’s presence was still larger than life in Vienna as master of the sonata form, and Chopin wanted to prove he too had mastery of the large-scale form. He did not want to be judged by a composition written while he was still a student.

Chopin gave a preview performance of the Marché and reviews of this performance state Chopin had a ghostly appearance. The solemn feeling of the Marché brought tears to the eyes of the audience and Chopin removing the word funèbre from the title of the Marché intensified the music’s painful impact.

Marquis de Custine, left the most evocative corroboration in a letter of 22 October 1838 to Sophie Gay:

‘Consumption has seized that figure and has made of it a soul without a body. To say his farewells to us…then, to finish, funeral marches that, despite myself, made me dissolve in tears’.

Opus 35 is structured as a narrative, a story where each of the movements leads directly into the next. The stormy agitated chords of the coda in the first movement become the theme of the scherzo.

The four bar introduction to the first movement marked grave could just as easily be an introduction to the Marché. The finale which is a miniature sonata in and of itself sums it all up in one of the most mystifying enigmatic pieces ever written for the piano in a minute and a half.

The exposition in the first movement depicts a stormy life of a Polish émigré going first to Vienna then onwards to Paris, France. The turbulence and agitation of the first theme group in the exposition exhibits Chopin’s inner turmoil, which is strongly contrasted with a lyrical second theme group in the exposition. The sarcastic side of Chopin’s personality is shown in the Scherzo. The scherzo is fiery and displays a great deal of rage with explosive chords, which emulate the repeated tonic note as in the Marché. In Chopin’s life there was also a great deal of unrest over political problems in Poland as well as a tumultuous relationship with George Sand. Another source of controversy was his opposition to the romantic climate in which he was immersed in Paris. An ingenious composer with strong roots in classical and baroque music, Chopin’s music was also revolutionary. Lyrical trios in the second and third movements follow the classical sonata outline going to the relative major keys yet still have Chopin’s distinctive nocturne style. This put his signature on the classical sonata form. Chopin’s frail health continued to deteriorate and he was often consumed with thoughts of death, hence the foundation of the sonata is the Marché. Friends said he often stated “please make sure I am not buried alive”.

Chopin’s Salon in Nohant, the Home of George Sand, Paris, France Where He Spent Many Hours Working on his Musical Biography

Chopin establishes mastery of large-scale composition (sonata form) with his own signature style in his only composition without dedication. Chopin’s contribution to the sonata form development is substantial in opus 35.  As the sonata form developed from the Baroque period of pieces with multiple movements each with their own character this developed into the sonata form of the classical period, Beethoven first expanded the form than began to compress the form and link the movements together motivicaly. Opus 35 continues the development of the sonata form with creative mastery and development of motives, which penetrate each other and are linked together.

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