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Studies of Musical Compositions

In our studies this month we have two pieces of widely unlike moods, demanding from the player entirely dissimilar treatment and drawing upon differing technical resources. We may extend our contrast still farther, calling attention to the fact that one piece, Serenade, Op. 29, Chaminade, is written by a woman; the other, Waltz, Op. 64, No. 1, Chopin, by a man; one composer living, the other dead.
We may also find points of likeness. Both compositions are extremely delicate in their appeal to the ear; both are elusive, yet not without some distinctness of color and effect; both are exceedingly tuneful.
But let us look at the Serenade. Here the title calls to mind the moonlit balcony, the flowered terrace, the latticed window, the lute (or, more prosaically, the mandolin or guitar), and the gallant singing to his adored one. We shall feel as if we had been defrauded should the composer not hint at the mandolin and the song at least, even if the latticed window and the flowers and the romantic personages be left entirely to the imagination. All through the piece the sharp, staccato click of the eighth notes followed by rests suggest the dry stroke of the mandolin pick; and, if we demand more, we get the melody; now low,—the lover; now high,—the lady.
We have here, then, a salon piece of an elegant type, constructed on tried and approved models, interesting us at once on the imaginative side, and proving, as we shall see, well worth while. Its quiet beauty (the piece never rises above a mezzo forte) is of the most delicate type, and we must think of it as the gentlest of murmurs—as gentle as the rustle of tree-branches and falling leaves in the early fall days.
It will be very interesting to note how, by overlapping the themes, the composer has succeeded in making one long endless melody. See how (in measure 21) the theme beginning in measure 5 ends at the same moment that a second one begins; this occurs again in measure 29, in measure 35, in measure 43, and in many other places. This device gives to the piece its elusiveness. Then, too, a very original and beautiful effect is gained in measures 44-49 by the unusual chord employed; in measures 86-87, by the unusual chord and resolution to the unexpected key of B-flat, and again (measures 90-91), by the unexpected return to the first key and theme. Those curious in such matters may write the chord in measure 90 with G-sharp instead of A-flat, and then note that the chord has its usual resolution instead of, as at first sight, an unusual resolution.
One word of warning from the expression side: Do not play the piece so softly that the melodies are not heard clearly—dolce ma ben marcato il canto.
From the interpretative standpoint the Chopin waltz, which will be found in the music pages of this issue, needs far less care than the serenade, but from the technical point of view, it is much more difficult. One must imagine tiny fingers dropping pearls of sound with the utmost rapidity; only the nimblest and most fairylike execution can do justice to this whirring, spinning valse. We are convinced that Kullak spoke the truth when he said: "The technical execution must remind one of fine, elegant filagree work; the piece seems created for elegant ladies' hands." Here, too, like the serenade, the volume of sound is never great; only at the very end do we find a forte called for.
If we look at our metronome mark (dotted half note equals 96) we shall see at once that we have the idealized waltz and not the one of gleaming shoulders, flowers, perfume, and the gayety of youth. None the less must we keep the rhythm well in hand. Only in the expressive, songlike middle part can we afford to relax for a moment now and again the swaying and swinging of the measures.
The phrases here are regular in length, but they do not overlap; indeed, the air is uniformly in the right hand, with the exception possibly of the delicious A, B-flat, C, D-flat, in measures 29, 30, 31, 32; let this come to the ear simply, but unmistakably, like the first crocus in spring. Those interested in such matters may look at measures 12, 13, 20, 21, and like places, to see how carefully Chopin covers up his joints. The effect of the whole first part is that of a running brook or of a shower of pearls or of a million dew-drops in the morning sun.
For most of us this waltz is the easiest one written by the composer, and despite its lack of depth, the most characteristic. The second waltz of this same opus is, in a way, something like it, and the waltz, Op. 70, No. 1, in its brilliancy (one almost writes "effrontery") is its antithesis. It is only when we take the really dazzling Op. 42—the one beginning with the trill—that we find the increasing difficulty exactly corresponding to an increase in effectiveness.
A very useful piece for the teacher's repertoire is Grieg's "Berceuse," Op. 38, No. 1, a most charming lyric which brings out fully the distinguishing characteristics of the cradle song, a swinging accompaniment in the left hand, supporting a tender melody for the right, which of course represents the song of the mother as she rocks her child to sleep. The player who aspires to a truly poetic interpretation in his work should steep himself in the best poetry that in subject and sentiment accord with the piece he may be studying. When a piece of the lullaby or cradle song is under consideration, the present writer recommends that a number of poems such as can be found in the works of our great poets, Tennyson, Longfellow, Scott, Mrs. Hemans, and many others, be read, and that those that suit best to the player's ideas be memorized. If access can be had to the shelves of a large library look up Scandinavian poetry, since Grieg, one of the most intensely national of composers, certainly pictures in his "Berceuse" the descendant of the race of sea fighters, the Vikings of the North, who helped to make our own English stock. The picture is splendidly drawn by Mr. Edward Baxter Perry in his book, "Descriptive Analyses of Piano Works." "The lusty son of a Viking stock, with the blood of a sturdy race of fighters coursing red through his veins, and with a will and a voice of his own, cradled in the hollow trunk of a pine or the hide-lashed blade-bones of the elk, wrapped in the skin of wolf or bear, and lulled to sleep by the rough, but kindly crooning of a peasant nurse."
In playing the piece we suggest that the pupil pick out the distinctive themes and let them take on a definite mood or emotional quality. The first leading theme occurs in the first four measures, and it is repeated, either in the same position, in a different key, or in some easily perceived form, six times. This will represent the refrain, or, to use the old- fashioned term, the "burden" of the nurse's song. The change of register, or of key, or of tone quality, as in the passage marked una corda, indicate greater or less intensity of feeling or of a roving of the thought to distant scenes where father may be sailing. The second principal theme, in G minor, marked tre corde, may indicate the Norse spirit, the ancestral fire that animates the scion of the race, who is in the cradle. This endures for only a moment, then interrupted by the song-like theme, in a different key from the first, out of which the composer elaborates the next twenty measures before the return to the first theme in its first shape. From thence to the close is a repetition that allows the mood to draw to a close as the child sinks to slumber.
Keep the ideas of the themes distinct so as to contrast them strongly. While playing them give value to the picture of the nurse or the mother rocking her child, the emotional part being supplied by the feeling of the thoughts that pass through her mind as she pictures the future which she hopes may be his.

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You are reading Studies of Musical Compositions from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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