The Ubiquitous Prelude


When researching Chopin’s Preludes for a presentation at 2016’s Summer School for Pianists, I was struck by the widespread use of the title –  from before Bach, to Kapustin and beyond. Preludes pop up everywhere, sometimes singly, sometimes in sets of twenty-four, harnessed to fugues, with and without descriptive titles, introducing suites. And then there’s the verb: ‘to prelude’, referring to past centuries’ custom of an improvisatory ‘preluding’ to another piece. Most recently, I discovered this little known Prelude by Liszt, specifically composed ‘to prelude’ a polka by Cui (described in the previous post).

So this year I plan to explore the world of The Ubiquitous Prelude. We will start in the key of C.  And we’ll start with Bach …

Above, manuscript of Chopin’s Prelude in F# minor, Op 28 no 8.

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All Hands on Deck – including Liszt’s and Rachmaninoff’s. The Paraphrases, and Two Pieces for Piano 6 hands.

borodinIt’s New Year’s Eve, 6.50am, and time to write the final post of 2016. Thank you, dear Reader, for sharing this journey through Mussorgsky’s Pictures and other Russian musical curiosities with me.

The penultimate work in this series of blogposts is the volume known as the Paraphrases. It is a collection of pieces for three hands and five hands, in two editions, by Borodin, [left], Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov in the first edition, published in 1879, and added to those composers in the second edition, works by Shcherbachyov and Liszt, published in 1893.


Have you ever been driven to distraction by children hammering out ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano?! There’s a Russian version of it, Tati-Tati, in single notes rather than in clusters, which formed the inspiration for the Paraphrases. At 2016’s Summer School for Pianists, Karl Lutchmayer, Graham Fitch and I performed the Carillon by Rimsky-Korsakov from the Paraphrases as a five-handed piece. The story of the Paraphrases, partly told by Borodin himself, appears in this quote from  ‘Borodin and Liszt’ by Alfred Habets.

‘About this time, Borodin collaborated with his friends, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadoff and Cui, in a work, apparently humorous, but really of a serious nature, entitled “Paraphrases,” twenty-four variations, and fourteen little pieces for piano, on a favourite theme obligato, “dedicated to little pianists who can play the air with one finger of each hand. [So strictly speaking, the pieces use four and six hands, but you can use just one hand for the top part.]

This theme, consisting of four bars, must be played by the first performer on the upper octaves of the piano, while the second player performs the paraphrases, for which more than a mere tyro is needed.

For this lengthy work Borodin wrote three pieces, by no means the least interesting, entitled ” Polka,” ” Marche Funebre ” and ” Requiem “; this last, in which a liturgical chant is developed as a fugue upon the popular and persistent air, is especially striking.

In one of his last letters addressed to his friends, Monsieur and Madame G. Huberti, December 14th, 1886, Borodin relates the origin of this work : —

” I take the liberty of sending you, for your little girls, my — or rather our — ‘Paraphrases,’ twenty-four variations, and fourteen little pieces for piano on the favourite theme of the Coteletten Polka, which is so popular with the little ones in Russia. It is played with the first finger of each hand. The origin of this humorous work is very funny. One day Gania (one of my adopted daughters) asked me to play a duet with her. ‘ ”Well, but you do not know how to play, my child.”

” Yes, indeed, I can play this -” tatitati

I had to yield to the child’s request, and so I improvised the polka which you will find in the collection.

[Listen to track 11 on this CD for the Polka.]

The four keys, C major, G major, F minor and A minor, of the four parts of the polka, in which the unchanging theme of the Coteletten Polka makes a kind of canto fermo or counter-point, caused much laughter among my friends, afterwards joint-authors of the Paraphrases. They were amused. First one and then another wanted to try his hand at a piece in this style. The joke was well received by our friends. We amused ourselves by performing these things with people who could not play the piano. Finally, we were requested to publish this work. Rahter became the proprietor and publisher. This music fell into Liszt’s hands, who was delighted with it.

He wrote a charming letter about it to one of his friends in St Petersburg ; the letter was very flattering to the author of the ‘ Paraphrases.’ One day the friend of Liszt’s who had received this letter mentioned it in a musical article. The critics, our enemies, were infuriated, and said that Liszt could not have approved of such a work, that he never wrote the letter, that the whole thing was a falsehood, and finally that we composers had compromised ourselves by the publication of such a work. 

franz_liszt_1880sWhen Liszt heard all this he laughed heartily. He wrote to us: — ‘If this work is considered compromising, let me compromise myself with you.’ It was then that he sent the scrap of music that serves as an introduction to my Polka, requesting Rahter to print it in the second edition of the ‘ Paraphrases ‘ already in the press. In view of Liszt’s great authority, Rahter thought well to engrave the facsimile of the leaflet sent by the great master. The reproduction of this leaflet was printed and added to the music of the first edition. Our enemies were silenced. Liszt was very fond of this humorous work, and it always amused him to play it with his pupils.

The page added by Liszt bore the title : — ” Variation for the second edition of the marvellous work of Borodin, Cesar Cui, Liadoff and Rimsky-Korsakoff, by their devoted Franz Liszt, Weimar, July 28th, 1880. To be placed between pages 9 and 10 of the early edition, after the finale of C. Cui, and as prelude to the polka by Borodin.” 

You can see the whole work here. And below is Liszt’s Prélude , with its accompanying notes and instructions for publicationprinted in the second edition as a facsimile. Click here for a recording.


 So who has the final word in 2016?  Rachmaninoff, who composed Two Pieces for Pianoforte Six Hands in 1890-91, a Waltz and a Romance, published in 1948. Here they are – performed by Tamás Vásáry, Kálmán Dráfy and the late Zoltán Kocsis at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.  Listen to the opening of the Romance, and you’ll find the opening idea from the second movement of the composer’s second piano concerto. Happy New Year!




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A Show of Hands – Rachmaninoff – for Four Hands

Following on from Scriabin’s pieces for left hand alone, let’s look now at his friend Rachmaninoff’s works for four hands at one piano, and for four hands at two pianos.

The Six Morceaux Op 11, for piano duet, were written in 1894. The movements are Barcarolle,  Scherzo, Chanson Russe, Valse, Romance and Slava [Gloria]. These are for more advanced pianists, and make a delightful set of pieces. Above are Martha Argerich and Lilya Zilberstein.

Even earlier is the Suite No 1 Op 5 for two pianos, composed in 1893, and dedicated to Tchaikowsky. Known as the ‘Fantasie-Tableaux’, it was intended to represent a series of musical pictures, based on poetry, and was first performed by Rachmaninov and Pavel Pabst in Moscow.  Follow the score below, and listen to Vadim Rudenko and Nicolai Lugansky in an astonishing live performance. These are demanding pieces. There are four movements: Barcarolle, La nuit … L’amour … ,  Les Larmes, and Pâques. The final movement is full of bell-like sonorities, which pervade so much Russian music.

And then there’s the Suite No 2, Opus 17, composed in Italy in 1901, and first performed by Rachmaninov and his cousin, Alexander Siloti. This is a firm favorite with pianists and with audiences – and it’s not for the faint-hearted player. Solid chords launch the Introduction: Alla marcia, which bowls along with cheerful confidence. Then comes the sparkle and glitter of the Valse. Who can resist its effervescent ebullience, fizzing like champagne in G major, then gliding suavely across the floor with its cross-rhythmed, elongated melody in E flat major, swirling seductively. The next movement, the Romance, is just that – full-blooded, with sumptuous, soaring melodies and rich harmonies. And to finish, a lively, scintillating Tarantelle. 

I love the performance by André Previn and Ashkenazy, which I can’t find on YouTube.  It is said that Rachmaninoff and Horowitz played this Suite at a party in Los Angeles in the early 1940s. Wish I’d been there …

Below are Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire. Enjoy!


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Give us a Hand

It has been a pleasure this year to perform in concerts which have included not only solo works for two hands, but works for one hand – and to be joined by pianist friends in works for four hands, five, six and eight hands. Piano can be a lonely instrument; chamber music is a joy, and piano ensemble pieces bring their own pleasures and challenges.

Continuing the Russian theme, let’s look first at pieces for left hand alone, by Scriabin. His Op 9 consists of a Prelude and Nocturne. Damaging his right hand while at the Moscow Conservatory when practising one of  Liszt’s transcriptions and Balakirev’s Islamey, he turned to composition and to developing his left hand; although he regained the use of his right hand, his subsequent compositions do make full use of both, with florid LH passages.

The Prelude, in C sharp minor, is an introspective gem. Sad and melancholy, the thumb is used to good effect in projecting the melody. Other fingers need to play accompanying chords discreetly. It ends sweetly on an unexpected major triad; the Nocturne continues this major tonality, flowering into arabesques, fiorature and passion reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes.

Some interesting recordings here by two Russian-born pianists –  Cherkassky above, and Neuhaus, below.

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Exit – via The Great Gate of Kiev

great-gate We’ve come to the end of the Exhibition, and Mussorgsky has saved the grandest musical picture to the last. It’s usually known as The Great Gate of Kiev, but the original title was The Bohatyr-Gate of Kiev; all who viewed this architectural sketch in 1874 would recognise the allusion to the Bohatyrs, tough medieval knights. Interestingly, Hartmann adds human figures to the design, giving scale, and  perhaps those figures on horseback reminded viewers of the warlike nature of the Bohatyrs.

This is music on a huge canvas; broad, spacious, underpinned by solid chordal foundations. We can hear a triumphal procession approaching through the arch, marching in step, interspersed with a far-off, distant chant of a Russian Orthodox choir; then suddenly the choir is near, at full volume.

Hartmann’s picture has a bell tower, with three bells visible. And the bells start to toll at different pitches and speeds – bass, tenor and treble, the sustaining pedal adding overtones and harmonics to give an amazing aural effect spread across the pitch spectrum. Mussorgsky’s final stroke of genius is to incorporate his own Promenade theme among the bells, high up amidst the right hand chords. He bids us farewell as the piece, and the exhibition, concludes with a massive E flat major blaze of immense proportions.

On Radio 4’s Front Row programme recently, the presenter discussed a current art exhibition here in the UK and  how the final selection of paintings at the end gave a sense of uplift. And so with Mussorgsky’s Exhibition, Hartmann’s pictures no doubt selected and re-arranged by the composer in a different order from the original listings in the catalogue, but in a way which presents them so satisfyingly – and with a sense of uplift at the end.

Onward and upward – the year is also nearly at an end. Some posts on other Russian music to follow …

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The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Baba Yaga – the Russian witch

hartmanns-clockJust as Red Riding Hood has a wolf, Narnia has the White Witch, Harry Potter has Voldemort  and everywhere has a bogeyman, fairy tales and children’s stories the world over have a villain, and Russian folktales are no exception. In Russian folklore this lot falls to Baba Yaga, the scary witch who lives in a mysterious dark wood in a house with chicken’s claws at its four corners. Whenever the witch hears someone approaching through the forest, the house can turn to face them and the victim can be lured inside, there to be ground in a pestle and mortar. Shades of Hansel and Gretel, perhaps. And when not in use for such a grisly purpose, the pestle and mortar double as a vehicle for flying through the sky.

Above is Hartmann’s design for a clock in the shape of Baba Yaga’s Hut, with its claws. But Mussorgsky’s musical picture goes far further than a literal representation of a clock, or of a hut. The music seethes with  barbaric fury and malevolence.


Abrupt interjections lead to a ‘revving up’ of a motor rhythm of leaping octaves in the LH above which the RH jumps and swoops perilously. The music pulsates with furious accents, vicious and vivid.

The tumult subsides, leaving the RH rotating on the interval of a minor 3rd; the LH now has an angular melody, creeping stealthily below in the bass. Chromatic tremolandi and a decrescendo take us to the deepest realms of the instrument; after some moments of suspense we return to the barbaric shrieks of the opening. Plenty of leap practice is needed for this piece which taxes one to the limit, but keep something back in reserve for the final, frenetic dash up the piano, hands alternating from the depths to the heights, finally  poised on a precipitous cliff-edge of tension. Wow.

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Promenade. Overground and Underground in France: The Market at Limoges; Catacombae, Sepulchrum Romanum

Mussorgsky promenades again, this time in a grand repetition of the very first Promenade at the beginning of the work, with a few subtle alterations and even more breadth. He is reasserting his own presence, and reminding us both of his self-appointed role as guide, and of his personal musical theme – a theme which will slip in again later, but in partial disguise. The ending elongates the value of the last few chords until we land on B flat and pause – and are suddenly thrown back into France, this time to the marketplace in Limoges.

The original painting is lost, but Mussorgsky’s colourful  musical picture is full of bustle and noise, excited chatter, arguments, gossip, laughter, busyness. Repeated chords tax the wrist, unexpected sf’s prod and poke through the texture, and a final cacophonous burst of energy sees the hands alternating in  furious demisemiquavers, reaching a fever-pitch crescendo …

Then, with the unexpected shock of a light suddenly extinguished, we’re underground. It is dark, cold, cavernous and echoing. And full of bones. From marketplace life above ground, crowded with teeming humanity, to eerie death below ground, crowded with the serried ranks of skeletal remains, in the Catacombs under the streets of Paris. And here is the picture – showing Victor Hartmann and fellow architect Victor Kenel in their top hats, looking at the bones, while a guide holds the lantern.



Browsing through a  copy of ‘The Diamond Guide to the Stranger in Paris’ of 1867,    I found this –

‘The Catacombs, ancient stone quarries, lie on the south of Paris. Those which are within the perimeters of the old barriers have been converted into a vast bone receptacle, whither have been transported, during the Revolution and since, the products of the exhumations made in the ancient cemetaries of Paris (upwards of six millions of dead). About seventy staircases give access to the catacombs.

The galleries of the bone caverns are lined with a double row of human bones (2 yards and a quarter in width). The cornice is everywhere formed of bare skulls …’

Slow-moving, massive chords give an idea of space and perspective; quieter chords return the echoes. The second part of the piece bears the title: ‘Con mortuis in lingua morta.‘ Mussorgsky jotted on the manuscript: “NB – Latin text: With the dead in a dead language” and, along the right margin, “Well may it be in Latin! The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within.”  Beneath a trembling right hand, we hear the ghostly and mysterious tread of Mussorgsky’s promenade theme, in a minor key, picking its way stealthily amongst the bones as he himself enters into the picture.

Below is a remarkable photograph in the catacombs taken in about 1870 by the French photographer, Nadar, using artificial light underground.

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