Satie’s Vexations – at Aldeburgh


Erik Satie

I’m very excited to be going to Aldeburgh this afternoon to take part in a performance of Satie’s Vexations as part of Musicircus at the Aldeburgh Festival. It is taking place at the Aldeburgh Beach Lookout and The Arthouse at 31 Crag Path, and started this morning at 10am. I say started – because it involves a team of pianists playing Satie’s score 840 times. I last performed it in King’s Place, London, as part of the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Experiment!’ Festival in 2010.

Satie writes: ‘ If one wants to place this piece 840 times in succession, it will be well to prepare oneself in advance, and in the deepest silence, through serious contemplation/meditation.’ Hmm …

Today’s performance includes poetry – and eggs! Come and join us. Peter Dickinson is giving a talk about John Cage at 1pm, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard is performing. My slot begins at 3.30pm. More details below.


840 eggs will add to the musical eggstravaganza of 840 successive performances of ‘Vexations’ on Aldeburgh beach this Sunday 22nd June.


The very first of the 840 eggs was enjoyed by the music critic Michael White

‘Vexations’ is the short piece of piano music which the avant garde composer John Cage performed 840 times in succession.  It is to be played this Sunday 22nd June by 23 pianists over 11.5 hours in the Aldeburgh Beach ArtHouse on the Aldeburgh seafront, as part of An Aldeburgh Musicircus, the largest gathering of musicians ever seen in Aldeburgh, during the Aldeburgh Festival 2014.

John Cage also inspired the idea of 840 eggs each of which will be boiled for exactly 4min 33sec the exact same length of time as his piece of silent music titled 4’33″.  Especially for this occasion the poet Ian McMillan has written the poem ‘The John Cage Egg’ (see below) which will be recited periodically throughout the day.



The John Cage Egg

Now bring to the boil; listen, listen hard
As the bubbles burst suddenly, steam rises

Making silent shapes in the receptive air,
And the egg itself knocks rhythm, rhythms

Against the unthinking pan. The egg hardens
Into the kind of silence you can eat,

The kind of silence you can bring soldiers to,
The kind of silence you can put in, yes, an egg cup

And tap with a spoon. Resonant silence,
The best kind. Turn the egg-timer, slowly:

Boil the egg for exactly 4 minutes, 33 seconds;
No less, no more. Exact, exacting silence.

Ian Mcmillan




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…To sleep, perchance to dream … or not … Two Nocturnes by Liszt

Liszt - Gottlieb CollectionWe’ve all been there; those nights when your head hits the pillow, tiredness overtakes you, and sleep comes quickly and quietly. Sweet dreams…

Then there are the other nights; those when you toss and turn, and thoughts, fears and questions go around and around in your mind for hours, with no solution, and no rest…

Liszt must have experienced both varieties of nights – and two of his late works set them to music. En Rêve -Nocturne, composed in 1885 and dedicated to Liszt’s pupil August Stradal, seems to represent the former.

Over a gently rocking accompaniment, a beautifully sculpted melody lulls and soothes us – but then an unexpected dissonance disturbs the mood … just briefly … peace is restored, the melody returns, and its final turn of phrase modulates down and down again and again … below quiet trills the pulse slows … silence … and the final chord hovers on the second inversion of the tonic without resolving onto root position – oh dear, what a prosaic and technical description of a magical cadence, but that is the means whereby Liszt enables us to drift off…

The other Nocturne couldn’t be more different. Written in March 1883, its title is ‘ Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort – Nocturne nach einem Gedicht von A Raab‘ – ‘Sleepless! Question and Answer – Nocturne from the poem by Antonia Raab’, who was a  Hungarian pianist and a pupil of Liszt. ( There is a letter from Liszt to Antonia in the Library of Congress – No 243, here .)

The poem is lost, but the music says it all. Have a listen -

A questioning musical idea arises above an agitated accompaniment of rolling arpeggio figures, encircling itself , growing in pitch and intensity, painfully unresolved, desperate.

A sudden pause, and the idea is heard unaccompanied in the minor key – and then in the major; it is harmonised in a higher register and used hesitantly to find its way to completion and resolution.

But Liszt wrote two versions; one is shorter, and –  forgive the technical details – rather than suggesting G# as the unaccompanied dominant of C# minor at the end, as in the performance above, it has a more ‘acceptable’ ending with G# in a chord as the mediant of E major.


Alan Walker writes astutely about the piece here in his book – Franz Liszt; The Final Years, suggesting that the Answer lies within the Question. Plenty here to ponder on, both musically and philosophically.

The late works of Liszt are a fascinating collection of pieces which look far into the future. This link contains clips from Leslie Howard’s Hyperion recording of them – well worth browsing.

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Chopin – Nocturne in C Minor, Op 48 No 1

Chopin's grave

Standing near Chopin’s grave in Paris a few years ago, I watched and listened as a young woman in a group of tourists quietly hummed the melody from one of his nocturnes to herself as she paid her respects. John Field may have invented the Nocturne, but it was Chopin who truly patented it.

-Marie_Pleyel_LithoWhy the enduring appeal of these pieces? Is it their luscious cantabile melodies, the colourful harmonies that delight and surprise us, the range of emotions that are expressed? All of the above, plus their variety, and the indescribable magic that they evoke.  The dedicatees of the pieces constitute a roll-call of Chopin’s friends, associates and pupils, the great and the good, such as Mme Camille Pleyel, pictured left, daughter-in-law of Ignaz, the piano manufacturer. Then there is Ferdinand Hiller, friend and fellow pianist, and even Jane Stirling, the Scottish pupil who organised Chopin’s trip to Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1848, and who paid for his funeral the following year. Below is her Erard piano.jane-stirlings-erard

We all have our favourite nocturne; the woman by the graveside was humming Op 9 in E flat – which was also used in the film 127 Hours. My nocturne of choice, however, is Op 48 No 1 in C minor, composed in 1841.

The tempo is Lento - but to choose it, think of  the speed at which you will play the last of the piece’s three sections, which begins at bar 50, marked Doppio movimento - which is double the speed of the second section, bar 25, marked Poco più lento. Therefore the opening will be slightly faster than that. And it’s mezza voce, that most Chopinesque of directions, literally meaning ‘half voice’ for the anguished but restrained cantabile melody singing over a discreetly measured accompaniment, which carefully picks its way through bass octaves and chords.

The aforementioned, slower second section signals a change: of tonality – to C major, and of texture – hands moving simultaneously together in a slow march, and of colour – to sotto voce, and even (initially) of range -the melody moves down to the alto register. Note, too, the arpeggiations of the chords, which have to be carefully judged.

All seems calm here, until a distant rumbling in the bass is heard, interrupting the flow. It continues to interject, gaining in volume each time, with a corresponding increase in the main theme’s dynamic level, like a speaker who has to raise his voice in order to be heard above an unwanted disturbance. By the end of the section both elements are at full strength leading to a huge climax; this ebbs away, and we return to the melody heard at the outset – but with a turbulent accompaniment. The denouement of the piece, at bar 73, is a masterstroke of harmonic genius – and one which  is pure Chopin.

The piece ends quietly. Place the final three chords with due reverence.



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Summer School for Pianists – come and join us!


It’s that time of year again – we are gearing up for the Summer School for Pianists! The emails are flying around, the repertoire is being finalised, the fingers are flexing, and we are looking forward to another great week of music-making and friendship.

I think that this long-running course is now in its fourth venue – we moved last year to the state-of-the-art Performance Hub at the University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall Campus, with Steinway Pianos, plenty of practice rooms, and comfortable areas in which to socialise and relax between events. Then there’s the swimming pool … and a gym, if you’re so inclined …

This year’s course runs from 16th-22nd August, and tutors are James Lisney, Graham Fitch, Karl Lutchmayer, Lauretta Bloomer and me. We’ll be giving recitals, classes and lectures – and more! Duets, accompaniment… Class members usually play three times in the week, there are student concerts, and private lessons can be arranged. Observers are welcome too, and short ‘taster’ visits are available.

There are a few places left, both in the classes and for observers, so don’t wait – come and join us for an inspiring week. All details on the website - . See you soon …

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Field and Chopin – Composers of the Week

John FieldTune into BBC Radio 3 this week for Composer of the Week, Chopinfeaturing the music of both Field and Chopin. Weekdays at 12 noon , repeated at 6.30pm.

Or listen again here:

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Of Pianos, Pedals, Pianists – and Tolstoy

In a recent televised interview, the writer Julian Barnes said that of all the pages that were re-written in a novel, the first page was the one that had the most revisions. That seems to apply to the opening of a blogpost too, as I’ve discovered as I’ve sought to encapsulate final thoughts on John Field and his Nocturnes before moving on to other composers.  Each time I attempt to pen my definitive closing remarks, another new fact or lead emerges which unveils yet another layer of fascination, causing many a diversion and yet another abandoned draft. Anyway, here goes – a last attempt at closure.

Clementi-Square-ca-1800_003John Field really was the right man in the right place at the right time. It seems an extraordinary coincidence that the creator of the piano Nocturne spent many formative years demonstrating the instrument in the showrooms of one of the leading makers – Clementi – when the piano was undergoing exciting innovations, both in its action, the compass of its keyboard, and the use of the pedal. [Click here for more about the Clementi piano in the RCM Museum.] Also, the composers Boieldieu and Steibelt were introducing the use of symbols for pedalling into their printed music – and both Boieldieu and then Steibelt lived and worked in St Petersburg, as did Field.  And what would a Nocturne be without the use of the pedal?!

Field’s first Nocturnes were published in 1814. What a perfect name for a piece, a term coined in a language which was not his own by an Irishman transported far from his native Dublin, catapulted into the French-speaking Russian aristocracy. Is there another musical title in the Romantic period which is  so concisely evocative? Perhaps Humoreske, but Nocturne is the title which has caught the imagination of composers from Czerny -with whom Field stayed when visiting Vienna in 1835 – to Samuel Barber, whose Nocturne of 1959 is sub-titled Homage to John Field.

And Camille Pleyel composed a Nocturne à la Field in 1830; his firm supplied pianos to Chopin, who dedicated his Nocturnes Op 9 to Camille Pleyel’s wife. [Pictured, the Pleyel piano used by Chopin in London, 1848.]Pleyel


What of John Field’s legacy? He leaves behind him a title and a genre, but during his lifetime his compositions provided teaching material for the next generation of pianists, used by foremost teachers of the time – including Chopin, who used Field’s nocturnes and concertos as part of his pupils’ repertoire. Field himself taught in both St Petersburg and Moscow -even Glinka had three lessons with him, which he never forgot. That wonderful technique, honed by years  of practice under the stern, watchful gaze of that eminent pedagogue, Clementi; that creamy sound, commented on by all who heard him – Field’s pupils will have absorbed it all, and will have passed it on.

My own teacher in England, Ronald Smith, studied in Paris with Marguerite Long, but also with a Russian emigré pianist, Pierre Kostanov, who I think must have left Russia after the Revolution. Ronald’s pupils all had a diet of Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, and studies by another Clementi protégé, Cramer. I wish I’d asked Ronald more about Kostanov. It’s a tantalizing thought – are Ronald’s pupils also beneficiaries of Field’s teaching, several generations later? Perhaps. We’ll never know…

Tolstoy and Landowska

And finally, the last word on Field – by Tolstoy, [pictured, right, with Wanda Landowska,] who, in War and Peace, Book 7, Chapter 10, places John Field and his Nocturnes at the heart of aristocratic Russia.

Dimmler, the house pianist of the Rostov family, is asked to play…

Natasha Rostova  by Elizabeth Bohm‘… Mr. Dimmler, please play my favorite nocturne by Field,” came the old countess’ voice from the drawing room.

Dimmler struck a chord and, turning to Natasha, Nicholas, and Sonya, remarked: “How quiet you young people are!”

“Yes, we’re philosophizing,” said Natasha, glancing round for a moment and then continuing the conversation. They were now discussing dreams.

Dimmler began to play; Natasha went on tiptoe noiselessly to the table, took up a candle, carried it out, and returned, seating herself quietly in her former place. It was dark in the room especially where they were sitting on the sofa, but through the big windows the silvery light of the full moon fell on the floor. Dimmler had finished the piece but still sat softly running his fingers over the strings, evidently uncertain whether to stop or to play something else….’



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Field – Nocturne No 5 in B flat Major

In the warm key of B flat major, a cantabile melody floats serenely above a fluid accompaniment, ornamented with sprays of filigree decoration; an orchestra provides a discreet background.

John Field Nocturne no 5The music is perhaps better known as Field’s fifth Nocturne, which started life as a Serenade, gained an orchestral accompaniment to become the second movement of Field’s third Piano Concerto, and later was renamed as a Nocturne.

And here it is – courtesy IMSLP, in what seems to be the original edition .

The pulse should be felt in two beats per bar; the long phrases need a carefully sculpted line, with elegant tapering of phrase-ends. The chordal section demands balance and control, with a singing 5th finger in the RH.

John field, edited by Liszt

It was Liszt who was asked to edit, and to write an introduction to, the first comprehensive edition of the Nocturnes in 1839  - translated extracts from Liszt’s writings here - and the full edition here  ; another version on IMSLP seems much more heavily edited.  Learning No 5 from Field’s own clear, uncluttered score is the best option – and a good introduction to the Nocturne genre in general.

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