Zen for Ten Post 4: Brahms – for your heart

Blog Subscriber Bonus! When you subscribe to the blog and join our email list, you’ll receive a PDF of my flash-fiction story “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which I wrote in response to Charles Mingus’s jazz tune of the same name. Subscribe (using the black button on the right), read the story, and then listen here to the music that inspired it.


Welcome back to Storytelling and Sound! This week’s Zen for Ten is more of a Zen for Fifteen, so here’s the breakdown of the video for fast-forwarding. (But I still recommend watching all of it. 🙂 )

Beginning of video: “Why Classical Music?” Thoughts about why we need this music today, how it connects us to each other, how it lets us explore our own feelings and communicate deeply and honestly

At 5:10: Introduction to today’s featured piece

At 8:25: Today’s feature: Intermezzo in E flat, Op. 117 no. 1, by Johannes Brahms

About the music:

Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1 is one of my favorite pieces for solo piano. It captures the heart of Brahms’s style as a composer and also points up how powerful, how potent, a gentle piece of music can be, and what depth of emotion it can express.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) never really wanted to be famous. That caused a problem for him, because as a young man – almost overnight, in fact – he became a legend.

It happened because of a work he wrote: his German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem) for chorus and orchestra. Other composers had written requiems, borrowing the Latin text of the Catholic Mass for the dead, but for his requiem Brahms decided to do something different.The Catholic Mass text focused on the person who had died, but Brahms wanted his music to comfort the living. Instead of the Latin words, he chose German poetry, which his audience would connect with and understand.

As it turned out, “understand” was an understatement. The German Requiem blew its first audiences away, starting with the people who heard the premiere of the full work in 1868. If you’ve never heard the piece, you can listen to the second movement (my favorite of the seven) here, as played by the Stockholm Sinfonietta. Imagine that these gorgeous melodies and harmonies have never existed in the world before. Imagine that you’re missing someone who is gone, someone whose loss left a hole in your soul, and you listen to this piece, and for a while that empty place is full again.

Suddenly, as a young man in his thirties, Brahms was a star. Other 19th-century composers, like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, wolfed down acclaim and demanded more. Brahms was different. He was a gentle person, a shy introvert who never wanted to be in the center of things.

He spent the rest of his life trying to cope with his reputation. The Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1 is one of his late piano works, written near the end of his life. As we listen to it, we can connect with that person who kept his deepest feelings inside, and let them out only through music. Music let him say what words couldn’t, and let him be his most honest self when the eyes of the world got to be too much.

To me, this piece sums up what classical music can do for us. In this gentle cradle song, Brahms gives us a safe space. “Come and sit with me,” he tells us. “We can talk for a while, or just be quiet together.” He wrote these notes over a hundred years ago, but they can still reach us now and make us whole. That’s magic.

Thought exercise:

Today’s exercise is completely personal. As you listen to the piece, what does it say to you? What feelings or memories does it tap? If it feels right, journal about them.









Zen for Ten Post 3: Bach for Your Brain

Welcome to Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound. New posts go up every Thursday and include a short piano-performance video, commentary about the piece and composer, and (often) a storytelling thought-exercise to go with the music. Take ten minutes, enjoy some music, and refresh your mind. If you like today’s post, please SUBSCRIBE to the blog (the button on the right), SHARE, and invite others to come check it out!

Today’s feature: Sinfonia (Three-Part Invention) no. 13 in A minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach

Note: Instead of writing all of my comments after the piece, today I decided to include them in the first part of the video. If you’d like to skip straight to the music, fast-forward the video to the 4:10 mark (though my mini-commentary is pretty good too 🙂 ). Either way, please be sure to check out the end of the writeup below, about why Bach is great for your brain.

About the music:

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was arguably one of the greatest composers of all time. He was so prolific, creative, and brilliant with his writing that, after his death, the next generation of composers had to develop new approaches to creating music. The general feeling was that Bach had done pretty much everything that could be done within the style of the time. That’s why the Baroque period in music history, dating from 1600 to 1750, ends with the year of Bach’s death.

Today’s featured piece, the Sinfonia or Three-Part Invention in A minor, showcases one of Bach’s favorite writing techniques: imitation. If you’ve studied piano, you might be familiar with Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. (If not, you can listen to a sample here, of the Two-Part Invention no. 1 as played by Glenn Gould.) The Inventions are short pieces in which each hand has its own part, independent of the other. The two hands work like two voices in conversation, trading “dialogue” (lines of melody) back and forth.

In the Sinfonias, Bach uses the same idea, except now in addition to the right hand’s voice and the left hand’s voice, there’s also a third voice in the middle. The two hands share that third voice between them. The three voices trade a simple melody back and forth in the high, low, and middle registers of the keyboard.

This kind of music is very tough to write. Each of the three voices has to have a melody that sounds good on its own, but you also have to be able to put them all together and create a consonant, beautiful “big picture.” Bach was a master of this approach to composition: maybe the greatest we’ve ever had.

The complexity and beauty of Bach’s music makes it terrific to listen to on a couple of levels. On the first level, we can simply take the music in and appreciate the beautiful harmonies and lyrical tunes. A second (and third, and fourth, etc…) listen, though, can give us more. We can start to pick out individual voices and hear what Bach does with each one, how he takes the basic melody that he starts with and builds it into such a rich and intricate piece.

Bach’s music is a gold standard for pianists and many other musicians, because of the technical mastery it demands. For all listeners, though, it helps to exercise the brain. In fact, parents are often encouraged to play Bach’s music for young children, because the music stimulates both sides of the brain: the left side with its logic and structure, and the right side with its melody and rhythm. At any age, it’s great to give your brain a boost, so be sure to have your Bach today!

Thought exercise:

If this piece is in fact a conversation between three speakers, who are they? What are they talking about? Is this a pleasant conversation, or an argument, or a little of each? What happens at the end of the conversation? Flesh out the three characters and what they’re discussing as fully as you can.

Zen for Ten Post 2: A Taste of Baroque

Welcome to Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound. New posts go up every Thursday and include a short piano-performance video, commentary about the piece and composer, and (often) a storytelling thought-exercise to go with the music. Take ten minutes, enjoy some music, and refresh your mind. If you like today’s post, please SUBSCRIBE to the blog (the button on the right), SHARE, and invite others to come check it out!

Today’s feature: Sonata in E Major, K. 380, by Domenico Scarlatti

About the music:

Domenico Scarlatti was born in 1685. Also born in the same year were Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel, two other legendary powerhouse composers. It was a great year for music.

Scarlatti, along with Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries, belongs to the Baroque era in music history. This period dates from about 1600 to 1750. We consider 1750 as the end of it because that was the year in which Bach died: he had such a huge influence on music, and developed many of the musical forms and ideas of the period so exhaustively, that the generation of composers that followed him had to learn how to write music a different way. (That’s a story for another post.)

Bach and Handel were both German composers and were two great proponents of the German Baroque style. German Baroque writing tends to be dense and intricate, using complicated ideas and creating elaborate musical structures that the average listener isn’t expected to follow. Many of Bach’s solo keyboard works in particular seem like puzzles he created for himself, exercises he wanted to work through mostly for his own enjoyment.

Domenico Scarlatti, on the other hand, gives us a taste of Italian Baroque writing, which favors elegance and lightness. (For another example of a great Italian Baroque master, check out Antonio Vivaldi.) Today’s featured sonata by Scarlatti is an excellent example of this other kind of Baroque writing.

When we think about the word “sonata,” we usually think about long pieces of music that often involve several sections (called movements). This typical structure for a sonata didn’t exist during Scarlatti’s time. In the Baroque era, the word “sonata” – from the Italian suonare, “to play” or “to sound” – could mean anything the composer wanted.

Scarlatti wanted to write pieces that borrowed from dance music. Popular dances of the time included the allemande, the sarabande, and the gigue. Each of these dances was short, featuring two sections of music: an “A” part and a “B” part. Scarlatti used this two-part form for his solo keyboard sonatas. (In the recording, you’ll see when we move from the A section to the B section, because that’s when I turn the page.)

The Sonata in E Major is one of my favorite pieces by Domenico Scarlatti. Please listen and enjoy!

Thought exercise:

This piece has no “story” attached to it; in Scarlatti’s time, composers generally didn’t think about attaching narratives to instrumental music. I’ve always loved this particular sonata, though, because to me it’s so evocative of another time and place. As you listen to it, focus on that word “place,” and think about what kind of place or setting the music creates in your imagination. Put yourself there and describe what you see, being as specific and detailed as you can.



NEW! Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound Post 1

Today marks the launch of my new feature blog, Zen for Ten: Storytelling and Sound. Every Thursday I’ll post a short piano-performance video, along with commentary about the piece and composer, and (sometimes) a storytelling thought-exercise to go with the music. Take ten minutes, enjoy some music, and refresh your mind. If you like today’s post, please SUBSCRIBE (the button on the right), SHARE, and invite others to come check it out!

Today’s feature: Sergei Prokofiev’s Tales of the Old Grandmother, Op. 31, second movement

About the music:

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was the artist who got away, but then went back.

He was born before Russia’s Communist Revolution and lived to see it happen. We often put him in the company of two of Russia’s other great 20th-century composers: Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich. Stravinsky left Russia and never looked back, spending the rest of his life in Switzerland, France, and finally the US. Shostakovich, on the other hand, never left, growing up during the Revolution period and spending his adult life under Stalin’s regime.

But Prokofiev was the one who – for a while – got out. After the Revolution, he spent time in Europe and the US, before choosing to return to his homeland. Unfortunately, the fact that he had spent time in the West automatically made him suspect to Josef Stalin, Soviet Russia’s emphatically paranoid and xenophobic leader. Prokofiev spent the last decade and more of his life caught in a strange duality: he was an internationally recognized musician who “belonged” to Communist Russia and could be held up as an example of the brilliance of Soviet art, but at the same time, he was potentially dangerous, an enemy waiting to be exposed.

Prokofiev’s birth and death dates put him in the category of 20th-century composers, but his style looks back toward the 19th century and the Romantic era in music history. The Romantic era, which dates from about 1825 to 1900, was a period in which composers dove into personal expression in their writing. Some composers, like Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin, often wrote passionate, showy music, demanding great physical strength and technical skill from performers and, in turn, showcasing those performers as heroic figures. Other composers, like Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, favored a more subdued, introverted style, highlighting intimacy rather than outward drama.

Prokofiev’s writing shows the influences of both sides of the Romantic spectrum. In Tales of the Old Grandmother, we focus on the intimate and understated. Many of Prokofiev’s pieces for solo piano are more in line with the Liszt-Chopin style, but here, we see music written in miniature. The Tales are made up of four movements, four separate sections, each only a couple of minutes long. There’s no outward virtuosity here. Instead, Prokofiev writes simple, spare melodies and gently sad harmonies, calling the audience to come close and listen carefully.

Prokofiev also inherited another idea from the generation of composers before him: an idea called Romantic Nationalism. Many 19th-century composers had a specific goal to capture, in their writing, the specific flavor and character of their home countries. In the 19th century, a group of Russian composers, already getting concerned about Western influence in Russian art, took it as their duty to preserve Russian traditions and harmonies in their writing. They harked back to an older Russian style in their work, using ideas that belonged to the music of the Orthodox Church, going back to their roots in order to keep their music purely Russian.

Prokofiev’s Tales bring this idea in also: folklore, storytelling, going back to the roots. The intimacy of the writing says that we need to listen closely, we need to hear and remember these stories about an older time. If we don’t pay attention, that time will be forgotten and lost.

The second movement is my favorite part of the Tales, but I’d encourage you to find and listen to the whole thing. (I might need to record all of it for a later post as well.) Let the simplicity and sadness of it take you.

Thought exercise:

Prokofiev tells us that this piece is meant to be, or represent, a story, but he doesn’t tell us anything about the narrative itself: who the characters are, what is happening to them, how the situation will resolve. Take this short piece as an inspiration and let it suggest ideas to you. What story is being told here? Translate the music into words.