Nocturnes – Poulenc

Poulenc in a sketch by Jean Cocteau

Unlike most nocturnes,  Poulenc’s set of eight nocturnes forms a cycle, with the final one serving as a coda (Nocturne pour servir de coda au cycle). They were composed at intervals between 1929 and 1938, and published separately at first. Below, Poulenc performs number one.

The fourth Nocturne, Bal fantôme, is prefaced by a quotation from Le Visionnaire by Julien Green: Pas une note des valses ou des scottisches ne se perdait dans toute la maison, si bien que le malade eut sa part de la fête et put rêver sur son grabat aux bonnes années de sa jeunesse (Not a note of the waltzes or the schottisches was lost in the whole house, so that the sick man shared in the festival/had his share of the party and could dream on his death-bed of the good years of his youth). I love this slow waltz, with its rich harmonies, evoking a vision of bygone nocturnal dances – and dancers –  in Poulenc’s characteristically bittersweet musical language.

And here is Poulenc playing it -

The other Poulenc Nocturnes are worth exploring, too; number 2, Bal des jeunes filles,  is charming and innocent. Number 3, Les cloches de Malines ( pictured below: Malines Cathedral ) has different layers of bell motives; Phalènes, number 5, is bi-tonal and over in a flash. Number 6 grows to a passionate climax in spite of it beginning Très calme mais sans traîner; number 7 brings back the sunny mood of number 2, and number 8 gives a calm sense of completion to the set.

The Cathedral of Malines

For further listening, here is the recording by Gabriel Tacchino.





Posted in Nocturne - A Little Night Music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lest We Forget

Poppies at the Tower

It is the weekend of Remembrance, more poignantly felt this year perhaps as we remember the centenary of the commencement of WW1 in 1914. This morning I make an early stop at Tower Hill to see the breathtaking installation of 888,246 ceramic red poppies, each one representing a British military fatality, surrounding the Tower of London. I am en route to work in South Kensington, where crowds of musicians, servicemen and servicewomen are gathering ahead of the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall. Police presence is large, all who enter the hall are searched, and parking is suspended on Prince Consort Road.

Royal-College-of-MusicI go up the steps into the Royal College of Music opposite the Albert Hall and walk towards the foyer, as I have done many hundreds of times. Today, however, it is different; in front of the memorial to those RCM alumni who died in two world wars is a music stand on which is a wreath of red poppies. Each name carved into the wall is that of a musician who also walked through these doors, probably laughing and joking, young and carefree. Who were these young men?

Two names I recognize; one is Adolphe Goossens, a horn player,  son of Sir Eugene Goossens. He died, aged 20, on 17 August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

5-august-1916-George-Sainton-Kaye-Butterworth_lightboxThe other name is Geo. Sainton Kaye Butterworth – George Butterworth, composer. Aged 31, Butterworth was hit by a sniper on 5th August, 1916, again during the battle of the Somme. Hastily buried by his men in the side of the trench they were defending, his body was subsequently lost. He is one of the Missing of the Somme.  Butterworth’s song cycle, ‘A Shropshire Lad’, although composed in 1911-12, has become almost emblematic of the nation’s  loss in 1914-1918.

‘Is my team ploughing’ is one of the most moving songs in the cycle; a dialogue between a deceased man and his friend, who is still very much alive.

Below is a performance of it by Peter Pears, accompanied by another RCM ex-student, Benjamin Britten, who, with Pears, was a pacifist and a conscientious objector during WWII. Britten’s War Requiem, which features settings of poetry by Wilfrid Owen  amidst the traditional movements of the Requiem, is being performed throughout the country this weekend – to remember.

RIP George Butterworth,  Adolphe Goossens, and all the Fallen RCM alumni. Some of those 888,246 poppies on Tower Hill are for you.

Posted in Composers | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fauré – Nocturne No 3 in A Flat Major


Today, November 4th, 2014, marks the ninetieth year after Fauré’s death; an appropriate time to write about his contribution to the Nocturne genre. There are thirteen of them, composed throughout his career from 1875 to 1922, from Opus 33 to Opus 119. Quite a span. But I’m going to focus on Op 33 no 3, written in 1883.

Here it is, performed by Alicia de Larrocha -

Gorgeous, isn’t it?! A curvaceous melody in A flat major flows easily above a bass line of outlying octaves and inner chords – it helps to remember that Fauré was an organist, with the added dimension of the bass-line on a pedal-board as part of his musical psyche, even if it was not at his disposal on the piano. Long phrases give way to more impulsive, shorter ones – follow the phrase marks – and we drift momentarily into sharper keys, higher and higher, before settling again on the dominant, and cadencing in A flat major.

The final RH motive at the cadence miraculously becomes almost the entire melodic material of the middle section, starting mid-range in the LH beneath the softly undulating RH, which then takes over above an impassioned accompaniment. Back to the melody in the  LH – and listen to those ever-increasingly adventurous modulations – where are we going … at last we finally return home triumphantly to the key of A flat.

Once again we hear material from the opening, but the accompaniment is now in triplets rather than chords, occasionally in a gentle, rhythmic tug-of war against the melody’s quavers.

And then the coda. As before, Fauré  takes us gradually into the piano’s stratosphere, but just listen to those harmonies; adding a G flat pulls us nostalgically to the subdominant side, briefly combining both motives before the solo RH ascends even further – and a magical, pianissimo modulation to F Major…

Ah, we’re home safely.  A flat Major, and a last, lingering farewell to a snatch of melody. Lovely.






Posted in Nocturne - A Little Night Music | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata – Movements 2 and 3

Op 27 No 2 Mvt 2

So how to follow the brooding darkness of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata? Transpose the final RH chord up an octave, transpose it into a major key – D flat major – change the metre to a graceful 3-in-a-bar, add some staccato to let light and air in, and compose a short, breezy movement in ternary form, full of humour, sudden syncopations in the middle section and sly, chromatically descending chords in the LH which wrong-foot the tonality – for a moment.

There’s no time to draw breath before Beethoven plunges us into the turbulent third movement. All calm is pushed aside by stormy violence; a crisp LH staccato bass beneath RH ascending broken chords which traverse the keyboard, broken octaves,  an electric Alberti bass in the second subject and development. The recapitulation moves to a shattering climax poised on two diminished 7ths, before the coda builds to a highly dramatic conclusion.

This Sonata presents a tightly unified whole; note how the first three notes of movement one provide the first three notes of Movement 3 an octave lower  – and they are then extended. Tovey writes of this movement: ‘… It is vital to the colour of the main theme here that the arpeggios should be without pedal and that the staccato bass should make its dramatic menace without disguise.’ Absolutely.


Here is Brendel’s performance of the entire Sonata -

Posted in Nocturne - A Little Night Music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Movement 1


'Moonlight Sonata' 3rd MovementWords fail me. Continuing this series of posts on works with nocturnal associations, and looking for a complementary image, I came across the one above – a facsimile of the Autograph of the third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata quasi una Fantasia Op 27 No 2, also known as the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, and below – the cover of the First Edition.

op. 27, 2 - Cappi, 879

What better way to introduce possibly the world’s most famous moonlit piece, published in 1802  – but it wasn’t Beethoven who gave the work that title.

Barry Cooper’s excellent edition of the Beethoven Sonatas, published by the ABRSM, tells us in the commentary that the name originated in a story which appeared in 1824, ‘Theodor‘, by Ludwig Rellstab, where one of the characters  suggests that the first movement portrays moonlight over a lake. The name was popularised in the 1850s by Wilhelm von Lenz, and the name has stuck. Millions will instantly recognise the sombre opening of the first movement, and/ or the title.

Alla breveIn C sharp minor, it demands a well controlled RH which has to balance an inner  accompaniment of discreet but rhythmic triplets, plus a 5th-finger melody. The LH needs harmonic awareness, and shaping.  Although marked Adagio sostenuto,  this movement has two minims per bar, rather than four crotchets, so the tempo must not drag, and ‘this whole piece must be played very delicately and with pedal’ – Beethoven writes: ‘si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissamente e senza sordino’. 

For practice, the broken chords can be turned into blocks to hear the harmonic progressions clearly; triplets can be practised staccato to lighten them, while sustaining the melody above. Note the pungent dissonances at bars 16 and 18 before the key change to F#minor in bar 23, and then the heightened tension of the higher range.

All subsides to hover over a LH dominant pedal point from bar 28, Beethoven’s strategic harmonic preparation for the return of the tonic key. Note, too, the regular harmonic rhythm changing bar by bar, but then from bar 35 the RH is waylaid by a diminished 7th slowly ascending and descending, with a flattened supertonic introduced in bar 39,  giving a taste of the Neapolitan 6th. The LH is finally allowed to move in bar 40 – V VI, and in bar 41 – IV V, and at last to I in bar 42.

A truncated version of the opening resettles on the tonic in bar 51, and from bar 60 the LH features the distinctive dotted rhythm on a repeated g#, emphasising the dominant, before four bars of tonic chord to close.

Barry Cooper’s commentary also tells us that Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil, recommended a speed of 54-63 crotchets per minute for this movement, and Czerny reported that  Beethoven used soft pedal throughout, except for bars 32-39.

The ABRSM’s earlier edition, with a commentary by Donald Francis Tovey, is also worth consulting, not least for Tovey’s illuminating comments.

He writes: ‘People whose musical taste is confined to favourite single movements may be contented to listen only to the first movement of this profoundly tragic  work, and thus for them the popular title ‘Moonlight’… may seem tolerable…. But moonlight will not suffice to illuminate the whole of this sonata, nor even to constitute its dominating impression. And if you do not understand  the other movements you will have but a shallow idea of the first… ‘

The next post will explore the remaining movements. Meanwhile, here is Wilhelm Kempff’s performance:



Posted in Music, Nocturne - A Little Night Music | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer School honours Alice Herz-Sommer

Well, it’s all over for another year. The eagerly-anticipated Summer School for Pianists 2014 finished yesterday, and what a fabulous week! A terrific group of piano-loving participants, 5 tutors working flat out giving recitals as well as masterclasses, private lessons and presentations, Steinways galore for practice, duets, accompaniment, socialising, a swimming pool ….  And we’re planning next year’s course already. Watch this space!

Performance Hub2


At this year’s Forum we honoured concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, born in 1903, who died in February aged 110. Her great age was remarkable; perhaps one of her secrets was her habit of practising Bach every day. But more than that – with her husband and six-year-old son she was deported to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp during World War 2. Having spent a year learning the Chopin Etudes prior to her deportation, she gave more than a hundred concerts for her fellow prisoners, and at more than twenty she played the Etudes.

Below is a quote from Alice’s Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer by Alice Herz-Sommer, Melissa Mueller and Reinhard Piechocki.

She said: ‘Music gave heart to many of the prisoners, if only temporarily. In retrospect I am certain that it was music that strengthened my innate optimism and saved my life and that of my son. It was our food; and it protected us from hate and literally nourished our souls.

There in the darkest corners of the world it removed our fears and reminded us of the beauty around us. Music supported me as I turned my back on my home town of Prague for the last time … and I am thankful for it too, at my great age, when I spend many hours alone. It hardly matters where I am; I am not prone to loneliness. Although I no longer travel any more, through music I can see the world.’




Posted in Pianists, Summer School for Pianists | 4 Comments

Night Pieces – Peter Sculthorpe (1929 – 2014)

Peter Sculthorpe

A sad day for Australian music; composer Peter Sculthorpe has died, aged 85. It seems an appropriate day to continue my investigation of music with nocturnal associations by writing about his ‘Night Pieces’ of 1971.

The suite of  consists of ‘Snow, Moon and Flowers’, three short pieces of about grade 4-5 standard, followed by ‘Moon’, and then ‘Stars’, which is harder. It is a lovely set, providing a  gentle way into 20th century music for those who wish to explore.

Here are Sculthorpe’s own programme notes -

The moon one circle; stars numberless; sky dark green. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
My Night Pieces, apart from Stars, were first performed at the 1971 Festival of Perth, for which they were written. The opening bracket of pieces is based on a Japanese concept known as setsugekka, which means, literally, ‘snow, moon and flowers’. This concept is concerned with metamorphosis: moonlight, for instance, may make snow of flowers, and flowers of snow; and the moon itself may be viewed as an enormous snowflake or a giant white flower. The music of these three pieces, and of Stars, is concerned with transformations of similar harmonic and motivic structures. Night, on the other hand, is a free transcription of a part of my orchestral work Sun Music I (1965). It is related to the other pieces in its gong-like punctuation and its harmonic usage. Snow, Moon and Flowers is dedicated to Michael Hannan, Night to Anne Boyd and Stars to Peter Kenny. Peter Sculthorpe

Take care in these pieces with the composer’s markings re tenuto, dynamics and accents; use of pedal and imagination combine to create a colourful addition to the repertoire.

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s classical music critic Peter McCallum said Sculthorpe’s passing is a loss for the music world. “His charm mixed with an instinct for austerity, spareness and an imagination for the sounds of a lonely Australian place created a uniquely distinctive musical voice.”

“Sculthorpe was the first Australian composer to create a distinctly Australian sound and style that communicated to a wide local and international audience. Before Sculthorpe, most educated Australians could not have named an Australian composer. His genial influence on students and composers encouraged generations of composers to look inward rather than abroad to discover their own voice,” said McCallum.




Posted in Nocturne - A Little Night Music | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments