ssiek

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  1. Textbooks for Composition

    You don’t really say how you know your grandson is a talented composer, but I presume it’s because he’s already writing. If so, I think that’s fine. Experts may differ on this, but even if the finest instruction were readily available to him, at his age I would still rather follow his interest in the subject rather than impose a good deal of theoretical discipline on him. However, I do think you should be concerned about helping him develop into the finest musician he can be, and inevitably this takes tutoring as well as instructional books. People sometimes differ over the meaning of “small town” so I don’t know exactly what is available to you, but I know many parents in my part of Ohio who drive considerable distances each week to take their children to competent teachers. I realize it’s often difficult, but most often it’s well worth the effort for all concerned. Most parts of the country are within 50 miles or so of a college with some kind of a music department, many of which even run programs that welcome gifted teenagers. If he’s serious about composing, or about any other kind of a musical career, a good keyboard background is extremely valuable, and I think the most important consideration is to be sure that he’s not yet able to outplay his present teacher. If he reaches that point, I would seriously discourage his continuing with her, because I think this is the skill at present that most needs developing and should be his highest priority. I would also encourage him to perform in public as a part of his study, so I hope that she organizes periodic recitals. Experts differ greatly over the wisdom of voice lessons for fourteen-year-olds—especially since he’s still an adolescent and his voice is still changing—but there’s nothing wrong with developing his sense of diction and pitch and exposing him to some standard repertoire. I am a little surprised that you have a voice teacher with much to offer in a small town, since their pool of prospective students is necessarily far more limited than it is for those who teach piano to young children. I’m also not quite clear what you mean by “scholarships” for voice—especially in a small town—because those are foreign to me, apart from the context of a college or conservatory. Even in those cases where I’ve taught high school piano students with a decided gift for composition, I haven’t worried too much about trying to instill a formal background in theory. I certainly believe that at some point anyone interested in composition needs to learn the rules of harmony and voice leading, but scarcely any serious professional will attempt to teach those principles just by assigning readings, and you should be advised that written work overseen and evaluated by a tutor is equally important. Since you mention the Dover scores, I presume your grandson is interested in serious composition, i.e. symphonic and chamber works, etc. Studying scores (with discretion) certainly may prove to be of some value at this point in his development, but it’s far more important that he develop his ear, and my guess is that he will not have heard live performances of most of the works he reads through. I don’t know what kind of a budget your family has, but I’m a great believer in acquiring whatever CDs seem appropriate through Tower, Amazon, or any other vendor you care to use (a boon to those living in small towns!). Cultivating his ear is at least as important as cultivating his eye. Again, I think I would follow his interest with respect to which composers, etc., but I don’t think that scores of a highly complex, involved nature (e.g., Wagner operas or Mahler symphonies) are likely to be of much value to this purpose until he’s a lot further along in his study. All things considered, if he’s genuinely gifted and he develops a love for and awareness of musical masterworks, by the time he gets to college he shouldn’t have any difficulties developing in whatever direction he chooses for himself. Good luck to you both! Stephen Siek Wittenberg University
  2. This question cannot be easily answered without getting at least a bit technical, so I hope that readers with more general backgrounds will bear with me. For centuries, composers have sought to achieve harmonic interest while keeping their bass lines either static or in very limited motion. In the early Renaissance, the term “fauxbourdon” (false bass) was often used to describe a succession of inverted chords which were created by singers who simply improvised from a single line of music, i.e. they were trained to harmonize a monophonic line at sight by transposing it down by a selected series of intervals. The final product resembled a series of chords sounded in first or second inversion with a bass line that proceeded in stepwise motion, and at some point that sound became so characteristic of trained choirs that instrumental composers occasionally mimicked it. It was a sound well known to the Elizabethan virginalist (harpsichord) composers, and you can find traces of it in the keyboard works of William Byrd and others. Through the Classical and into the Romantic periods, it was understood as an effect which tended to make instrumental textures seem lighter, i.e. the conscious avoidance of root position harmonies, often coupled with a largely stepwise bass motion. Schubert, for example, exploited this sound to great effect in the opening theme of his Fifth Symphony in B-flat: the theme begins at measure 5 harmonized with a tonic in root position, and in measure 7 we hear a dominant in root position, but that’s the last root position chord we hear till measure 19. All the intervening chords are in inversion and the bass lines are conjoined largely by step. I had a professor in graduate school once who said that “the terminology you give to musical events should depend on what you actually hear” when the work is performed. In the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, every chord has a specific identity, and the chord roots could be analyzed as migrating by chromatic half step, but it’s still very difficult to “hear” the opening bars as anything but a series of F minor/F major chords. I think he wants the ear to hear F as the continuous root with accented non-harmonic tones until the arpeggiated pattern begins at bar 9. If this is the way it registers on the listener, then the D-flat against the C in the second bar creates a severe dissonance and its migration to a D natural in bar 3 creates a much sweeter 6th to enhance a minor chord. All of this must be understood against a deliberate backdrop of tonal ambiguity, since the ear hasn’t yet been given enough to establish a key—it could be any of a number of possibilities until you reach the G on beat 4 of measure 8. I think this increases the tension. However, the arpeggiated effect you reference in the second movement of the Concerto is entirely different—this is something far more akin to the effect in Schubert’s fifth, except that the harmonies are richer. At bar 5 where the piano enters, the ear inevitably hears an E major chord in root position, but in the next bar he moves to an A major chord (the subdominant) in second inversion, which he modally alters into an A minor second-inversion just before beat 4. He then returns to a root position E chord to which he soon adds a seventh, resolving deceptively to an F-sharp major chord in bar 8. The E which is carried over in the pedal creates a secondary dominant of the dominant, i.e. the B major chord which is heard on beat 4, which resolves back into the E chord at bar 9. In other words, despite the fact that he provides an enormously long E pedal tone (it’s carried over—more or less—all the way to bar 20), the ear clearly hears a kaleidoscopic array of utterly distinct harmonies. It’s a textbook example of smooth voice leading and I don’t think there’s any way you can hear it as just 15 bars of so of E major chords slightly altered, despite the static bass part. He’s forcing the ear to hear a genuine harmonic progression. I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to in the Third Concerto, but those types of effects are very rarely—if ever—created by the left hand alone. He nearly always scores the arpeggiated parts to be divided between the hands. Stephen Siek Wittenberg University
  3. Rachmaninoff and Hofmann

    P.S. If I may add a postscript for the benefit of the Hofmann-philes out there, I should say that a few of his recordings I've heard I think are absolutely stunning, although I think the consensus is that he was a less consistent performer than Rachmaninoff. I also neglected to say that it is now possible to get a great many of his live broadcasts and public performances which were recorded--I only wish the same were true with Rachmaninoff! SS
  4. Rachmaninoff and Hofmann

    The only other written sources documenting Rachmaninoff’s opinions and viewpoints are those provided by journalists who interviewed him over the years. Unfortunately the question you ask (“Why do you like X?”) can be virtually forbidden by their canon of ethics, since often they traffic only in superlatives such as "the greatest of all time." Even in a better period of journalism like the 1920s and ‘30s, whenever they sensed a superlative, many were virtually opposed to elaborations and reasoning--especially if their copy had been endorsed by an "authority." Also, many of the interviews of Rachmaninoff were worshipful pieces by writers who regarded him as an icon, so that gaining an interview with him was a coup—they were not about to commit the unpardonable effrontery of asking him to explain himself. (Plus, as everyone knows, art is subjective, so how could there really be meaningful "reasons" for anything?) Stephen Siek Prof. of Music Wittenberg University P.O. Box 720 Springfield, OH 45501
  5. Heinrich Schenker

    Christopher, It depends entirely on what you mean by “analyze.” I don’t think Schenkerian theory does anything to tie a musical work to the facts of reality, but for that matter I don’t know any theory which does. For the benefit of those reading this who did not attend music school, Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) was an Austrian theorist who, among other achievements, edited all the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, and today, Schenkerian (or “linear graphic”) analysis is immensely influential in academe. Twenty years ago when I was in graduate school, there was a big debate at my conservatory as to whether the entire theory program should become “Schenkerian,” and in fact I can even remember some of the doctoral students being asked this question at their orals. Growing numbers of teachers seem to want to expose students to nothing except Schenkerian analysis even at the earliest levels—which is a mystery to me because I don’t see how anyone can learn basic harmony from Schenker. His system is not so much one of addition, but of continuous subtraction, which in the final stages, reduces every composition to a sparse three chords. Moreover, it’s important to remember that while Schenker offered his system primarily as an aid to performers, there is no way a performer can afford himself the luxury of conveniently sliding from “foreground” to “background” motion as Schenker does. For a performer, everything is necessarily “foreground” in the learning process, but “background”—i.e. relegated to the subconscious—during the actual performance. At the very least, the rather authoritarian manner by which he pronounces some parts of a composition to be more essential than others sends all the wrong signals to a serious performer, because in the learning stages, <i>everything</i> about a composition is essential. But I have more serious reservations about the deification of “analysis” over the past century, particularly given the lack of an objectively valid theory of musical aesthetics. At the moment, I have no idea what a “perfect” analysis would represent, other than a certain consistency of terminology. I certainly believe that music students should learn harmony and counterpoint, and that harmonic analysis, for example, can be of immense help to performers, composers, and scholars. But Schenkerian analysis expands from harmony into a type of all-inclusive “definitive” understanding—at least in the minds of many people. When I was in school I had a lot of courses in both approaches, and although I can only speak personally, I have to say that today I never use anything I learned in the Schenker courses—but I constantly use what I learned in the more traditional analysis courses. And the older I get, the more suspicious I become of the kind of “analysis” which removes all sensual or timbral elements from a musical work. Years ago, I remember looking at one of Schenker’s diagrams for a Schubert composition I really loved, which he had reduced to three fundamental chords. The emotional reaction I had was not that my understanding of Schubert had been enhanced, but that the composition had been destroyed. I don’t want to suggest that Schenker cannot possibly have any value—I just remain to be convinced that he makes a significant contribution to the understanding of tonal music. Good luck with your studies! Stephen Siek Prof. of Music Wittenberg University P.O. Box 720 Springfield, OH 45501
  6. Improvisation

    “Improvisation,” as the term is used by most musicians, simply means the ability to create a finished product at will, without prior reflection or practice. But to an onlooker, the definition may not be a very helpful litmus test, since there is no way directly to enter someone else’s consciousness to learn how much relevant mental activity has preceded a given performance. For example, just as today’s opera singers and concert pianists memorize vast quantities of repertoire, many aspiring jazz enthusiasts have committed the published arrangements of Ellington, Fats Waller, and others to memory so that they may sound like they’re “improvising” when they perform them on the piano. By the same token, someone with a very good ear can recreate a performance heard repeatedly from a recording and virtually reproduce it. That’s the way Bix Beiderbecke began his earliest work on the cornet, since his music reading ability was poor and his ear was astonishing, so that this approach served him well in the early stages of his development. At some point he began to hear the sounds in his head that he wanted to bring to life, and then it was simply a matter of coordinating his ear with his physical approach to the instrument. Effective improvisation requires all three attributes: 1) a mental conception of what you want to hear; 2) an “ear”—i.e. a sense of pitch—which enables you to find the corresponding pitches at will; and 3) the necessary physical command of your chosen instrument that will allow you to realize your mental conception. But a stunted growth in any of these areas can cripple all three. For example, I’ve seen many good pianists virtually imprison their improvisational style simply because they never sought to improve their technique, and over time their “conceptions” fit comfortably only into the framework of what they could easily play. By the same token, a lot of people who stop listening and are unwilling to take chances—i.e. they’re not developing their ear—begin to improvise around the same narrow formulas or in just one of a few keys, and their renditions begin to sound stultifying and monotonous. The questioner offers no details concerning the style he seeks to learn, so this answer is probably longer than it needs to be. All successful improvisers perfect a backlog of devices, techniques, and melodic formulas that they insert at appropriate times, and a great deal of learning how to improvise is learning a repertoire of such devices. If someone is interested in traditional jazz improvisation, I often suggest they obtain the music for half a dozen traditional standards (anything from “Over the Rainbow” to “Laura” to “The Sound of Music”), and try substituting chords (this can and ideally should be taught via principles, but it’s too involved to relay here). A great deal of the interest evoked by fine jazz artists is the specific character of their harmonic substitutions and the best of them work this into their melodic invention as well. If you learn to do this sort of thing well, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with less demanding styles (blues and rock almost by definition admit less harmonic variety). Some music schools today, however, are also teaching their students to improvise in the style of Mozart, and although the harmonic inventiveness is far more restricted, the keyboard demands are far greater, i.e. you have to learn to play the piano really well first. Stephen Siek Prof. of Music Wittenberg University P.O. Box 720 Springfield, OH 45501