A mini-recital for Lee and Natalie
For your listening pleasure, five piano solos with a bit of commentary. (Imagine intermissions wherever you’d like. 🙂 ) With apologies for the mostly-in-tune piano!
Three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti was born in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel. (A great year for music.) He belongs to the Baroque era of music history (about 1600 to 1750), when the keyboard of choice would have been the harpsichord rather than the piano. Scarlatti’s sonatas are short and elegant, modeled after popular dances of the time: minuet, sarabande, gigue, etc. Like each of these dances, each of Scarlatti’s sonatas has two main sections (think of them as “A” and “B”). Pro tip: in the last of the three sonatas played here, you’ll be able to tell when I go from the A section to the B section because that’s when I turn the page. ( 🙂 )
2. Two short works by Johannes Brahms
These two pieces, the Intermezzo Op. 116 No. 6 and the Intermezzo Op. 117 No. 1, are two of my favorite pieces ever. They were the first two piano solos by Brahms that I ever learned (about 25 years ago). Brahms was a deeply romantic and deeply introverted soul. The tenderness of these pieces, written near the end of his life, expresses more than he was probably ever able to say in words.
3. Sonata in B flat Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart belongs to the Classical era in music history, about 1750 to 1825. By this point, a couple of generations after Scarlatti, the word “sonata” had taken on a new meaning. Now it meant a piece incorporating multiple separate sections, or movements. The Sonata in B flat, characteristically for the Classical era, has three movements. The first and last are quick and the middle movement is slow, creating the polite and elegant symmetry that Classical composers favored. By this point in history, the piano was making its appearance on the musical scene, but wasn’t yet the powerful and versatile instrument we know today. Mozart created delicate pieces for the new keyboard, but at the same time, in this piece we hear some of the sudden contrasts and humor he was famous for. (If you’ve never seen the movie Amadeus, highly recommended. The stuff about Salieri poisoning him is probably wrong, but Mozart’s personality as shown there is apparently on the money.)
4. “Pagodes,” from Estampes, by Claude Debussy
Debussy brings us forward into the Impressionist era of music history (overlapping the end of the Romantic era, 1825-1900, and the beginning of the modern era, 1900-present). By this point, the piano had become the instrument we know today: the full range of 88 keys, the power and versatility to serve as a solo instrument, chamber instrument, orchestral keyboard, etc., and the flexibility to create a huge palette of musical colors. Like many composers of this time, Debussy had fun exploiting all of the piano’s possibilities. This piece is the first movement of his three-movement suite Estampes, literally “stamps” or “carvings.” Each movement of the suite is meant to represent a different place in the world. The first movement has a strong Eastern flavor, created mainly through Debussy’s heavy reliance on the black keys of the keyboard. The black keys are grouped in sets of five, creating pentatonic scales, which are the basis of Eastern harmony. (Western harmony relies on the octatonic scale.) Debussy also calls for a heavy use of the sustain pedal (right hand pedal), which gives the sound a shimmering, surreal quality that also evokes the work of Impressionist painters. (Not to mention, all of this is quite fun to play.)
5. (last but not least) Prelude #2, by George Gershwin
Gershwin, of course, is one of our best-known American composers, famous especially for his jazz-flavored writing. This prelude is my favorite of his set of three.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this musical interlude! Sending hugs to you both.