Happy Birthday, Franz Liszt

Raise a glass to Liszt today, on his birthday. Here he is, below centre, celebrating his 73rd birthday in Weimar with some of his students in 1884. 

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Preludes – and All That Jazz. Preludes by Gershwin and Kapustin

Following on from 1910 Preludes by Rachmaninoff and Debussy in a recent post, here are two twentieth century composers whose Preludes reflect the influence of jazz.

Jazz seeped into the classical mainstream in the music of Millhaud, Stravinsky and Ravel, and in America in the music of Gershwin. His piano concerto, the orchestral piece An American in Paris, and the opera Porgy and Bess all exude the harmonies and rhythms of the jazz age. And so do Gershwin’s Three Preludes for solo piano, first performed by the composer in New York in 1926, and dedicated to Bill Daly.

Here is Gershwin’s own recording of his Preludes.

The first prelude is introduced by two unaccompanied bars of melody, rather as if a solo saxophone were trying out a few notes. A punchy LH rhythm then propels the music on its way beneath a tune based on the introduction. It’s bright, it’s breezy, and the final scale zips up the piano with the hands a fourth apart.

Gershwin referred to the second prelude as a Nocturne. Above a moody LH figure which rocks back and forth croons a bluesy melody; think Ella Fitzgerald, and warm sultry nights. The middle part can be played with crossed hands; the tonality is major although with ‘blue’ notes still present; the rhythm is jaunty, the accompaniment can be lightly played, as if strummed. The opening music returns, concluding eventually on a major chord, but with a delayed, single flattened seventh note to add a final touch of the blues. Place it with care.

Driving rhythms characterise the third prelude, with perilous leaps towards the end. Keep them clean!

Nikolai Kapustin will celebrate his eightieth birthday on the auspicious date of November 22nd this year. He studied at the  Moscow Conservatory, but early experience of jazz influences his style, which fuses Russian virtuosity with jazz idioms.

His 24  Preludes in Jazz Style Op 53 of 1988 follow the circle of fifths. Many are technically demanding, but No 3 in G major is less challenging and a good place to start exploration.

Languid, colourful chords brood thoughtfully, with some fairly outrageous, X-rated harmonies thrown in occasionally to capture the listener unawares. It’s a real winner; I’ve performed it many times this year and have always been confronted by a string of people asking for details.

Listen here:

And No 4 follows it well – enjoy!


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Chopin In The Park!

I’m  delighted to be playing Chopin in the Park next Saturday, September 2nd, in the Walled Garden at  Holywells Park in Ipswich. The programme will include Preludes, Mazurkas, the ‘Military’ Polonaise and the Berceuse, the ‘Funeral March ‘ Sonata and two of the Scherzi, plus Paderewski’s Menuet.

Having loved the music of Chopin since I was a child, it is an honour to have been invited to give this performance. Having visited Chopin’s grave, as well as the La Madeleine where his funeral took place, and the monastery at Valdemossa where he wrote out the Preludes, it is a special joy to present so much of his wonderful music in one evening.

Book here!  


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1910 – A Vintage Year for Preludes by Debussy and Rachmaninoff

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In 1910 , George V (above, centre) became King of England, the Zeppelin took its first commercial flight and  E.M. Forster published Howard’s End. There were Champagne  Riots in France (below), caused by the failure of the grape harvest. But it was a vintage year for Preludes. Debussy completed his Preludes Book 1, and Rachmaninoff completed  his Preludes Op 32.

I’ve written in earlier blogposts about certain Debussy Preludes; from Book 1 :

Danseuses de Delphes, Voiles, La Fille aux cheveux de lin,  Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest,
La danse de Puck, and from Book 2: Hommage à S Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C and Ondine.  Each of Debussy’s Preludes has a descriptive title, found at the end of the piece, almost as an afterthought.  So let’s now look at Rachmaninoff’s twenty-four preludes.

Anyone looking for either the pattern of the circle of 5ths, or the key pattern used by Bach in Rachmaninoff’s Preludes will be disappointed; indeed, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor was published as part of his Suite Op 3. His Op 23 Preludes, of 1903,  contain preludes in what seem a random choice of keys. Look, however, at the Op 32 set, and we see that the  keys needed to complete a cycle of twenty-four are all present and correct, if not immediately in order.

Prelude Op 32 No 5 in G major shows Rachmaninoff at his lyrical best. Above a gently undulating accompaniment, a limpid melody sings and soars, the flow aided and abetted by teasing cross-rhythms. The RH occasionally crosses over the LH to add depth, sonority and resonance below. The music modulates to the dominant before a fleet-fingered cadenza and trill introduce the minor key; the sun is covered by clouds and the bass line sinks lower and lower, finally settling at its deepest with a low C.

But the sun re-emerges, as the melody, now restored to G Major, soars higher and higher before wending its way down again. It comes to rest, and a brief coda of tangled chromaticism resolves onto the final chords. Note the two-note slur – details matter!

Two recordings of interest – firstly Rachmaninoff’s own, and then a masterclass recorded at the Royal College of Music, where young Junior Department pianist Anthony Tat is put through his paces by Lang Lang.





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Raindrops on Roses? Three Preludes by Chopin from Op 28


Chopin’s Prelude Op 28 No 4 is barely a page in length, but a wealth of emotion is crammed into its short span. Above a throbbing, chordal accompaniment which changes harmony agonisingly slowly, inch by inch, note by note, sits a melody which hardly moves at all, either rhythmically or melodically. At first it lingers on the interval of a falling semitone again and again, until it reluctantly moves a tone lower and repeats the process, wearily. With an effort the melody repeatedly tries to break free, until against a LH octave B – Chopin notates the pedal carefully here – it almost escapes with an impassioned bid for freedom. It sinks back hopelessly to its former pattern however, having eventually landed on the tonic. A pause over a chromatic chord, and silence; then three chords of despairing finality.


Along with the E minor Prelude, the B Minor Prelude Op 28 No 6 was played on the organ at Chopin’s funeral. That tells us something about its mood and character.

I once overheard some lively, musical teenagers discussing their piano repertoire. One of them insisted that she was going to learn the B minor prelude to play in a competition in seven days’ time. I remember thinking that the notes could well be learnt in a week, but giving a meaningful performance might take a little longer.

Again, Chopin uses a throbbing accompaniment, but in this prelude it is more of a heartbeat, heard above a LH melody which yearns and soars like a cello – thoughts of Etude Op 25 No 7 come to mind, and indeed Chopin’s Cello Sonata, written for Chopin’s great cellist friend, Franchomme.  Towards the end of the prelude, the heartbeat gets weaker, and fainter, until it ceases.



Prelude No 15 (above) is the so-called ‘Raindrop Prelude’, so-called because Hans von Bülow gave it the title, and it has stuck. Chopin would probably have objected to the name.

This time, Chopin’s throbbing accompaniment is a single note, innocuous at first below a genial soprano melody in D flat major which flows easily, stopping to admire itself on notes of longer value.  The manuscript is revealing – we witness Chopin’s care over the RH phrasing alteration before the modulation to C#minor, the LH  then carefully  phrased as well as the RH in that dark middle section.

‘…But how strange  the change from major to minor…‘  as the song* says. The repeated note becomes ominous and threatening above low LH chords, which now carry the melody, moving inexorably on each beat towards the cadence. The melodic material gradually encompasses a wider range as tension and volume build, the endlessly repeated note turning into an octave, and then found  pulsating within RH chords. At last we return to the warmth of the major key. The darkness is dispelled.

Here is the inimitable Cortot:


* Lyrics from ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye‘ by Cole Porter.





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Setting the Scene – a Prelude to Disaster

So here we are at the Real Cartuja in the hillside town of Valdemossa. The video below gives some idea of the atmosphere. What brought Chopin, Sand, her two children and a French maid to this extraordinary place?

In part, it was the nineteenth century equivalent of Murphy’s Law: ‘Everything that can go wrong, does.’ On arrival in Palma in November 1838, it was difficult to find lodgings, but eventually this little group of travellers found some rooms in a noisy city street, before the ever-resourceful Sand managed to rent a furnished villa (below) in Establiments, four kilometres from Palma.

Camille Pleyel, composer, piano manufacturer and eventual publisher of the French edition of the Preludes, had shipped a Pleyel piano to Chopin; it was delayed, but before it arrived a little piano was found to rent. So far, so good. Chopin wrote – ‘I’m surrounded by palm trees, cedar, cactus; lemon, orange, fig and pomegranate trees everywhere … The sky is turquoise, the sea lapis-lazuli, the mountains emerald and the air like heaven …’

Then came the rains. And with the rains, Chopin’s cough increased to the point where consumption was feared; the landlord refused to have the family rent his house, expelled them, burnt the furniture and charged them to replace it, as Spanish law decreed.

The French Consul came to the rescue by having them stay with him temporarily. A longer-term solution was then found – they could rent monastic cells, recently vacated by a revolutionary and his wife in an abandoned  Carthusian Monastery. Still without the Pleyel piano, at least there will be an organ in the monastery’s church, thought Chopin and Sand – but no; the Carthusians are a silent order of monks. You couldn’t make this story up.

Nevertheless, this motley group moved in and made the best of it. Walk though the Cartuja on a winter’s day; it is cold, and dark. Voices echo around the cloisters, as do footsteps. The Apothecary’s cell is still there, stocked with ancient bottles; it was present in Chopin’s time, too. A local woman who ‘helped’ George Sand with the domestic duties lived in; there were ruins, and a graveyard.  It was reputed to be haunted. The locals were hostile. The road to Palma was a track liable to flooding and subsidence. The Pleyel piano ended up in the customs house in Majorca; Sand pestered, haggled and persisted until it was released – for a price – and had it brought to the Cartuja. Sand’s son, Maurice, sketched Chopin performing for the locals.

And yet … Chopin wrote out the manuscript of his Preludes, and worked on the third Scherzo and the second Ballade, among other pieces. George Sand finished her novel Spiridion there; writing through the night while the others slept. In spite of Sand’s best nursing efforts, Chopin’s health deteriorated; they had to leave. Sand managed to book the family on a steamer bound for Barcelona – loaded with pigs. Hardly a salubrious choice of travelling companions, but it was the only transportation available.

In a  stone-cold monastic cell stands the Pleyel piano on which Chopin composed. Next, we’ll look at three of the pieces he would have played on it.

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A Winter in Majorca. Chopin – Preludes Op 28

Planning a winter holiday on the island of Majorca? Accommodation – a deserted monastery, the Real Cartuja, in the village of Valdemossa (above). Perhaps Bach’s Preludes and Fugues wouldn’t be on your list of must-haves, but they were on Chopin’s, when he spent the winter of 1838-9 on the island in the company of George Sand and her two children. At the beginning of their relationship, Chopin and Sand left Paris separately and travelled via different routes to meet in Perpignon, and then journeyed on to Palma (below). Why go there? Why indeed, when with hindsight the devastating effect on Chopin’s health is considered. But the idea was to escape the wagging tongues of the Paris gossips, and to exchange the harsh European winter for a milder, Mediterranean climate, in view of Chopin’s ever-present cough.One of Chopin’s projects for the winter was to complete his twenty-four preludes, commissioned by the French pianist and publisher, Camille Pleyel. Perhaps Chopin took his copy of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues for inspiration, but twenty-four preludes for piano (without fugues) in all the major and minor keys following the circle of fifths had been published by composers such as Hummel in 1815, and the German Joseph Kessler in 1831, the latter set dedicated to Chopin. Chopin returned the compliment by dedicating the German edition of his own preludes – which follow the circle of fifths, unlike Bach’s Preludes and Fugues – to Kessler.

The  Majorcan visit is well documented by George Sand in her memoirs and in her book, ‘A Winter in Majorca’.  There are letters and diaries, and even sketches by Sand’s son, Maurice. Even better – one can visit the Monastery, as I did on a cold winter’s day a few years ago.

Chopin wrote to his friend, Fontana, on 28 December 1838:

‘… Between the cliffs and the sea, a huge deserted Carthusian  monastery,  where in a cell with doors larger than any carriage-gateway in Paris you may imagine me with my hair unkempt, without white gloves and pale as ever. The cell is shaped like a tall coffin, the enormous vaulting covered with dust, the window small. In front of the window are orange trees, palms, cypresses; opposite the window is my camp-bed under a Moorish filigree rose-window. Close to the bed is an old square grubby box which I can scarcely use for writing on, with a leaden candlestick (a great luxury here) and a little candle. Bach, my scrawls and someone else’s old papers  … silence … you can yell … still silence. In short, I am writing to you from a queer place.’

So let us open the door of the Cartuja, a building ‘soaked in the silence of centuries’, and step back in time …

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