Exquisite Etude

A “suspension” is a musical device in which a change in harmony happens but one note is left behind, usually one too high (occasionally one too low) and it falls into line on the next beat. While it hangs suspended, the note stands out as dissonant, and then when it falls in line there is a satisfying feeling that harmony has been restored.  Suspensions became a favorite during the 16th century, and they’ve never gone out of style since.  By the early 19th century, Chopin could write into this etude one suspension leading to another to another, so that we listen with a sense that just as one note is resolved, there’s another that’s hanging.

An etude is a study piece, presumably meant more for a student’s learning experience than for an audience’s listening pleasure.  Chopin wrote 27 etudes, (Op 10, Op 25, and three more after he was dead, which is a good trick by any stretch) and — just to make a point, I think — he included some of his most beautiful melodies in the etudes.  I think he was sending a message, “just in case you think this is a boring student piece…”

I fell in love with one of the posthumous etudes last week, and spent a few hours learning to play it.  The melody is simple, based on notes repeated 2, 3 or 4 times each.  The interesting thing is that as the melody notes repeat, the notes underneath are subtly shifting.  We say the “inner voices” are moving even as the melody and bass, which you hear most prominently, stay constant.

One more feature in the composition of this piece that adds tension and interest is that the left hand is written 4 eight notes to the measure and the right hand in 6 eighth notes, with the result that alternate notes of the base fall in between melody notes.

I had trouble finding a recording in which you can really hear the inner voices moving, so I tried to make one myself, by playing more slowly, slowing imperceptibly before some of the inner voice changes, and playing the inner voices a little louder than they might otherwise be played.  I count the experiment a failure–I like Edna Stern’s recording far better than my own, even after I allow myself a few gaffs and goofs.  Stern, by the way, is playing on a Pianoforte styled after one from the early 19th Century, such as Chopin might have played.  The tones don’t resonate as long and the overtones are less rich than a modern piano, so it sounds just a bit plinky.

Here is Stern’s version,
and here is mine.



Is music itself not in fact a kind of contemplation of the eternal enigma, expressed through sound, an enigma equivalent to Eternal Beauty?
— Krzysztof Jeżewski

Claude Debussy is 156 years old today.

Happy Birthday, Gustav

Leonard Bernstein talks about Mahler’s last Symphony as prefiguring not just the music but the tragic wars of the 20th Century.

Mahler’s Third Symphony with a larger-than-life guide:

Flaming chariots of the Titan Symphony:

Gustav Mahler was born this day in 1860.

Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Born in 1833 and 1840, in Hamburg and Votkinsk, both on the 7th of May.   The most popular, most beloved of all the great late romantic composers, and yet they couldn’t appreciate one another.  Brahms was indifferent to Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky actively disliked Brahms’s music and argued that it was unappealing.

Today, their reputations are both solid.  We think of Brahms as more the formalist, the intellectual.  But compared to many 20th Century composers, his music is not at all abstract or difficult to appreciate with our hearts.  We think of Tchaikovsky as sentimental, but what a genius!  In originality of orchestration he is unsurpassed.   His works have deep integrity of structure, an intellectual attribute for which Brahms is known.  Even his counterpoint—the most abstract of compositional techniques—is brilliantly original.

(When I was young, I learned a prejudice against Tchaikovsky from musician friends who said his music was shallow.  So I’ve learned to love his music later in life than Brahms.)

Both repressed their sexuality.  Brahms was in love with the wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann.  Tchaikovsky was attracted to men, but secretive and ashamed in the repressive environment of Czar Nicholas.

The two men met twice in their lives.  Brahms was reported to be solicitous, Tchaikovsky a bit more stand-offish.  Neither was warm.

      “It is impossible in listening to Brahms’ music to say that it is weak or unremarkable,” Tchaikovsky goes on. “His style is always elevated. Unlike all our contemporary musicians, he never has recourse to purely external effects; he never attempts to astonish us, to strike us by some new and brilliant orchestral combination; nor do we meet in his music with anything trivial or directly imitative. It is all very serious, very distinguished, apparently even original, but in spite of all this, the chief thing is lacking – beauty! A few years ago, when I frankly expressed my opinion of Brahms to [pianist-conductor] Hans von Bülow, he replied: ‘Wait a minute, the time will come when you will enter into the depth and beauty of Brahms. Like you, it was long before I understood him, but gradually, I was blessed by the revelation of his genius. It will be the same with you.’ And still I wait; but the revelation tarries. I deeply revere the artistic personality of Brahms. I bow to the actual purity of his musical tendencies, and I admire his firm, proud renunciation of all the tricks that solemnize the Wagner cult, and in a much less degree the worship of Liszt, but I do not care for his music.   — Bradley Bambarger

Here are links to the scherzo 3rd movements of Brahms Symphony #4 and Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. Both movements are palpably joyous. (If you’e interested, you might listen to what comes right after the pizzicato string fade at the end of the Tchaikovsky movement. I won’t give away more.)