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!

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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.’




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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.




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Nocturnes by Schumann and Mendelssohn. But not the usual suspects …

Some years ago, the Promenade Concerts in London  were criticized for not programming any works by women composers. Lest I be tarred with the same brush, here are nocturnes by Clara Schumann, from her 6 Soirées musicales, Op. 6 of  1836, and by Fanny Mendelssohn. Enjoy!


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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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