The Romantic Piano

Arriving at a concert venue to give a recital some years ago, I was greeted by the promoter, who whispered to me: ‘I didn’t know what title to give your recital, so I’ve called it The Romantic Piano‘.  A sensible choice; I was playing music from the Romantic period.

But it got me thinking. The Romantic Piano can refer to music of the Romantic period; the Romantic Piano, as an instrument, differed from the piano of the Classical period; the Romantic Piano could refer to romantic subject matter as a work’s inspiration – eg Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, Drei Romanzen Op 28 by Schumann, etc.

So this year the blog and I will stroll through the repertoire, the instruments, the subject matter and the composers who have contributed to The Romantic Piano. And I hope you will join me.

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A farewell to Preludes from the Square d’Orleans – Chopin, and his neighbour, Alkan

Two further Preludes by Chopin end this year’s series of posts; but before writing about them,  I couldn’t say farewell to 2017’s  topic, The Ubiquitous Prelude, without a mention of the Preludes by Alkan, who lived near Chopin for a while in Paris. The two composers were firm friends. During the 1830s, Alkan moved into the fashionable Square d’Orléans, where, in 1842, both Chopin and George Sand became his neighbours in two separate apartments. (And looking back to my previous post about preludes, on 23 April 1837 Alkan took part in Liszt’s farewell concert in Paris, together with the 14-year-old César Franck.)

In all the major and minor keys, Alkan wrote 25 Préludes, dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 31  for Piano or Organ; they appeared in 1847. His Preludes  are in three volumes. They begin in C major, then go to the subdominant minor – f minor – (up a fourth); then we have D flat major, (down a third), followed by its subdominant minor – f sharp minor (up a fourth) etc. The cycle ends with a second prelude in C major. Most of the preludes have titles. One of the most remarkable is La chanson de la folle au bord de la merThe song of the mad woman on the sea-shore, where a groundswell of deep chords accompanies the high-pitched, eerie wailing of this tormented soul. And here is one of my inspirational teachers and a champion of Alkan’s music, Ronald Smith, to play it –

A good selection of five of the most approachable preludes appears in Alkan in Miniature  , including La Chanson de la folle, the  gentle Placiditas, and J’etais  endormie mais mon coeur veillait. which was Busoni’s favourite. Here is Ronald Smith’s recording, together with the score:


On one CD, Olli Mustonen has recorded Shostakovich’s Preludes as well as Alkan’s; an interesting coupling, which won a Gramophone Award in 1992.

Here is Mustonen –

And so to Chopin, and two ‘stand-alone’ preludes, which don’t belong to the Op 28 set of twenty-four, but which have associations with their copyists.

In  a letter to Julian Fontana from Majorca in 1839, Chopin wrote: ‘ … I send you the Preludes. Copy them, you and Wolff …’ So who were these two gentlemen, entrusted to make an accurate, hand-written copy of Chopin’s Preludes Op 28 to be given to the German publisher, while Chopin’s manuscript was destined for the French publisher, Pleyel?

Fontana was a close friend, a pianist and composer, a personal assistant, project manager, an amanuensis, general factotum and dogsbody to whom Chopin entrusted negotiations, arrangements and all sorts of tasks and errands. Letters to Fontana are full of directions to do this and that. In 1841 Chopin was composing the Prelude Op 45 in C sharp minor, and wrote to him from Nohant concerning the dedicatee’s name:

‘ I don’t know how Mme Czerniszew  spells her name; perhaps in the thing under the vase, or somewhere in the drawer of the little table, near that bronze ornament, you can find a card from her, or from the governess, or the daughter. If not I should be glad (if you don’t mind) if you would go to her — they already know you as my friend — at the Hôtel de Londres, Place Vendôme, if they are still in Paris, and ask, from me, that the young princess should give you her name in writing. You can say why: is it Tscher, or Tcher? Or, still better: ask Mlle Krauze, the governess. Say that I want to give a surprise to the young princess, and ask Mlle Krauze (who is very pretty) to write to you whether it is Elisabeth, and whether Tschernischef or ff: how they usually write it. Say that she can tell the princess (the mother), but not the daughter, as I don’t want her to know till I send it from here. If you would rather not do it, don’t mind saying so to me ; just let me know, and I will find out elsewhere.  But tell Schlesinger not to print the title yet; tell him I don’t know the spelling. But I hope that you will find a card in the house with the name…’ *

It’s a piece with a myriad of modulations and a sighing melody, while the accompaniment ebbs and flows. It pauses on a chromatic chord, and then a nebulous web of chromaticism falls and rises before the final few bars.

Pierre Wolff was a pianist friend who was a Professor of Piano at the Geneva Conservatory. In July 1834 Chopin composed  a quicksilver prelude for him as a gift, dated and signed on the second page –  ‘A mon ami, P Wolff. It was not published until August 1918.  

Here are both preludes, played by Murray Perahia. And, just for the record – the dedicatee of Prelude  Op 45 was Elisabeth Czernicheff. That’s Elisabeth with an ‘s’, Czernicheff with two ‘f’s. And a very Happy New Year to you all. Thanks for reading.

*From Chopin’s Letters, Collected by HENRYK OPIENSKI Translated from the original Polish and French with a Preface and Editorial notes by E. L. VOYNICH

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Cesar Franck – Prelude, Chorale and Fugue

Imagine a vast, darkened church, built on a huge scale, with candles flickering in the gloom before statues in alcoves along the aisles. A slight whiff of incense lingers in the air. Far up in the organ loft at the west end, a light appears. Stops are pulled out, and the organist starts to play softly, running his fingers over the keys, improvising, modulating, exploring.

That’s the image I always have in mind whenever I perform Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for piano, written in 1884. From 1858-1872 Franck was organist at the church of Sainte-Clotilde [pictured], the third of his posts as an organist. Although he trained as a pianist, the sound of the organ looms large in this piece, both in the style of writing and in its technical demands. Franck wrote a Prelude, Fugue and Variation for organ, and a Prelude, Aria and Finale for piano; his improvisations on the organ at the church were legendary. He was well versed in the ‘prelude’ genre.

The Prelude has an unusual texture; the melody falls on the second note of each set of eight demisemiquavers. It is highly chromatic and colourful, and in the mournful key of B minor, written in a harmonic language which is unique to Franck. It couldn’t be by anyone else. Silences are important as it progresses: to clear the air harmonically, to give room to breathe, and time to think. It should sound extemporised, the melody encircled by falling  patterns which swell and diminish.

Declamatory, questioning sections, based on new motifs, visit a rich assortment of keys above a walking bass which sounds literally like feet on the pedal-board. A soft, pp reprise based on the opening texture adds the sweetness of a brief visit to B major, before a forceful modulation to G sharp minor interjects, itself dismissed by a return to the home key. Frank adds two modulatory chords after what seems to be the final tonic, so that, rather like being on a revolving stage, we are transported elsewhere …

The music has moved from B minor to the warmth of E flat major for the Chorale movement, and from the Prelude’s falling cascades of demisemiquavers to block chords moving on each crotchet below the melody. An introductory section soon moves to C minor for the actual, hymn-like chorale, and it is here that Franck the organist can be witnessed. The well-shaped melody is in a high register in single notes. Chords lie beneath, and below them another walking bass in octaves, as if on a pedalboard, supporting the texture. But how to play all 7 notes simultaneously, covering 4 octaves – a melody, chords and a bass line  – with only two hands? Franck’s ingenious solution is via an arpeggiation; the LH arpeggiates the bass line octave, the RH follows and arpeggiates the four-voiced chords above, during which time the LH  flies over the RH into the treble register on each beat to pick out the notes of the melody, before flying back to the bass line for the next beat. It takes longer to read about it than to play it, but there is an inevitable time delay involved in this pianistic process, creating an aural effect not unlike the acoustic vagaries of a vast cathedral. The chorale is heard three times, each time more loudly and in a higher key, with intervening interludes. The piece comes to a close at the end of the third hearing of the chorale, the last two chords forming a plagal cadence. Amen.

Più Allegro – an episode prepares our ears for what is to come, by introducing a  three-note figure which will be part of the Fugal subject, stopping and starting, hesitating, then making a decision to launch itself into the Fugue proper via an anxious, spiralling flourish. The subject is torturous chromatically, as is the counter-subject, with semitones pulling against each other as each voice enters the fugal exposition. Highly contrapuntal episodes enrich the texture,  and listen out for devices such as inversion, imitation, and fragments of the subject calling and answering each other amidst flowing triplets. The music reaches a mighty climax; a pungent neapolitan 6th gives way to a pause on the harmonic precipice  of a dominant 7th chord. So we’re going to the tonic, yes? N0 – Franck launches into a furious coda, the fugal theme pounded out in the midst of a swirling texture taken from the Prelude. Here is Franck the organist, revelling in colour. The tension gradually subsides, ushering in an ethereal version of the chorale melody. Save your  most magical sound for this moment. More modulations and huge dynamic growth lead to a climactic collision where Franck pulls off the extraordinary feat of the fugal subject, the chorale melody and the Prelude figuration – all at the same time. Tonality moves to the major, and a dominant pedal point, so beloved of organists, can be heard; then at last, we are rewarded by the longed-for relief of the tonic chord of B Major and the chorale melody in the major key. Peals of bells, jubilation, triumph. Journey’s end, at a satisfying destination.

I was privileged to learn this work with Roy Shepherd, who studied it with Alfred Cortot at the Ecole Normale in Paris. Below is Cortot’s recording.


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Happy St Cecilia’s Day – Preludes by Clara Schumann, Cecile Chaminade and Lili Boulanger

It is November 22nd – birthday of W F Bach, Benda, Britten and Kapustin among others, and it is St Cecilia’s day, patron saint of music.  I’ve written elsewhere about Raphael’s painting of St Cecilia; this post is to celebrate some preludes by women composers.

Firstly, by  Clara Schumann, who wrote a set of three Preludes and Fugues Op 16 (above), a Prelude in F Minor, and who also wrote  Praeludien which appear online in her own hand – and her own fingering.  She also improvised preludes for some of her husband Robert’s Fantasiestücke Op 12; below is the prelude to Des Abends, performed on an historical  instrument. For interesting reading, I recommend this excerpt from Anatole Leikin’s book, The Mystery of Chopin’s Preludes, for the background to Clara’s preludes.


Next a prelude by Cécile Chaminade – note the forename –


– and finally a very interesting little piece by Lili Boulanger – a real gem. Worth a listen!

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When I was in Leipzig – Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues


Do you ever wish that you’d asked more questions of your teachers? I do. When we’re children, sometimes we are too shy, or too timid, or  we don’t know which questions to ask. Looking back, I wish I’d spoken up when one of my inspirational piano teachers, Gordon McKeown, said to me in a lesson, ‘Oh yes, when I was in Leipzig he was there,’ referring to the editor of the music I was using. I should have jumped in immediately with ‘When were you there? Why? Were you studying at the Conservatorium? For how long? Who with? Tell me about it!’ But no; I silently swallowed the information without comment. I’ve never forgotten it, though. And when I was in Leipzig in September, I remembered it afresh, and wondered again.

There are so many musicians associated with Leipzig; Schumann and Mendelssohn spring to mind, but above all, it is Bach whom we associate with that city. In 1950 the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition was held there. Chairman of the Jury was Dmitri Shostakovich – yes, he was also in Leipzig  – and one of the competitors was Tatiana Nicolayeva, who won the gold medal. She had learned all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues for the occasion. Shostakovich was so impressed by Bach’s music and by this young woman that he returned to Moscow and wrote his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87. Nicolayeva gave the first performance in Leningrad in 1952, and subsequently recorded them .

Here she is talking and performing, and there is footage of Shostakovich performing, too.

I particularly like the Prelude and Fugue in A major. The Prelude starts in a well-behaved fashion, not unlike a two-part invention by Bach, except that it goes its own sweet way into obviously 20th century harmonic territory. The fugue is based on a broken up tonic triad of A major, and it remains benignly without dissonance throughout. The A minor Prelude and Fugue follows well, as in this recording by Richter.

So  – when I was in Leipzig, I visited St Thomas church where Bach was Cantor, gazed upon his grave with awe, listened reverently to someone practising the organ, and marvelled at the a capella group Calmus who were rehearsing Arvo Pärt for a concert that evening.

In my lessons with Gordon McKeown, we started  with a collection of beginner pieces known as  The Children’s Bach, published by Allans, with the well-known portrait of Bach on the cover in monochrome. In the nearby Bach museum in Leipzig hangs the original painting [below], and two copies, so at last I came face to face with an image I’ve  known  since my childhood. After sundry Polonaises and Minuets from the Children’s Bach, I graduated to the Small Preludes – excellent teaching pieces – and then Two-Part Inventions and movements from the French Suites; later, there were Partitas, Toccatas, and Preludes and Fugues on the agenda.

But I digress. To France next, for another Prelude and Fugue, but this time with a Chorale in between them …

Painted portrait of German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) holding the ‘Canon triplex for Six Voices,’ Leipzig, Germany, painted by Elias Gottlieb Haussmann in 1746. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


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A Plethora of Preludes – Prokofiev, Kabalevsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich

The year is slipping away – there are so many Preludes to discover! And so little time to write about them all … So here is a quick canter through a few more Russian composers’ offerings.

Prokofiev’s charming Prelude in C Major comes from his Suite Op 12, a delightful collection of early pieces composed between 1906 and 1913. Here is his own piano roll recording, and below that, the transcription he made for harp.

Each of Kabalevsky’s 24 Preludes is based on a Russian folksong. Here is Horowitz performing the melancholy No 8 in F sharp minor, and the explosive No 16 in B flat minor. Wow.

The earliest prelude in Scriabin’s catalogue  is the lovely Op 2 No 2, and  I’ve written before about Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand, Op 9 No 1. His 24 Preludes Op 11 were composed over the eight years between 1888-1896, and there are a few YouTube recordings of Scriabin himself in performances made for piano rolls.

No 11 in B major, is a particular favourite of mine. Here is Yuja Wang:

For comparison, here are Scriabin’s five Preludes Op 16 of 1894-95, in an assortment of keys, the first in B Major. A magical ending. Far-off bells, perhaps …

The pianist is Igor Zhukov.

Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes were written during the winter of 1932-33. Following the familiar circle of 5ths, each has a well-defined character, expressed succinctly. This one in D flat major, performed by the composer, is imbued with wry humour.

Shostakovich also composed his own set of Preludes and Fugues – more of that anon.

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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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