Music Appreciation: Sarabande from “Pour le Piano” by Claude Debussy

It took me a while to figure out which piece to discuss this time. November has been a busy month. It started with a combined student recital and clarinet choir concert that I organized and performed in, followed by a week-long staycation for me where I got a chance to dive back into an arranging and composition project I’ve been neglecting for far too long. I was also busier with teaching private lessons (which is good, but it does add to my schedule). Then there’s the usual work and house stuff, plus Thanksgiving. Before I knew it, it’s the end of the month and I hadn’t picked a piece to talk about.

Claude Debussy

By Donald Sheridan (Donald Sheridan) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My busy schedule aside, let’s talk about Sarabande, from the suite Pour le Piano, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). I didn’t appreciate Debussy until I was an adult. For various reasons, I dismissed him when I was younger. I’m sure part of it was his use of “smushy” chords, though I didn’t fully grasp that at the time. Some of it may have been because I couldn’t easily play the pieces I came across in piano compilation books. I seem to remember a friend of mine (who also played piano) didn’t like him, and that influenced me. But later on, after I’d been exposed to more of his music, I realized I do like him after all. He’s mostly known for piano music, but that music also works well when transcribed for other instruments. For today, we’ll stick with a piano performance.

A sarabande is a dance form in triple meter (i.e. 3/4 time). It has origins in Spain, but later became popular in France as a slower, stately dance. Many orchestral and other instrumental suites over the years have had a sarabande as one of the movements. Debussy marks this piece as “avec une élégance grave et lente” (roughly translated to “with a serious and slow elegance”), so pianists’ interpretations vary on exactly how slow to go. Beyond the version I show here, poke around YouTube a bit to listen to other performances.

 

 

The piece begins quietly, both hands moving together in rhythm. We start right in on those squishy chords, don’t we? But the rhythm and shape of the line sets up our primary theme (0:07-1:13, kind of). The themes and motifs in this piece are more nebulous than in other pieces we’ve discussed. so bear with me on this one. And while Debussy uses a lot of complex chords, sometimes he treats us to straight-up major chords (0:39 and 1:09) which let our ears take a break from the more complex harmonies throughout the piece.

At 1:15, Debussy repeats what we heard at the very beginning, note for note. While he keeps the rhythm at 1:32 to match what we heard earlier (0:25), he alters the notes and shape of the line, and adds in chords for a full sound before dropping down to utilize the lower octaves of the piano (1:37). After the fullness of what we’ve heard, it’s unexpected.

The secondary motif begins at 1:50, dark and brooding. Listen for the moving line in the middle of the chords. I hesitate to call this a full theme because it doesn’t really stick around all that long before morphing into a transition. But you’ll hear that initial rhythmic line, and a close relative, several times in this section (1:50-2:51). We keep building upward in pitch, though not always in volume, until 2:52 where the chords cascade down into the recap of the primary theme.

While we’ve been rather quiet and delicate up until this point, Debussy changes moods when he goes back into the main theme. The first statement is marked forte (our first one in the piece), and the chords are bolder and more “normal”-sounding that what we’ve been hearing so far. But quick as that, Debussy switches right back to delicate at 3:22. The notes and rhythms are similar enough to what happened at the beginning of the piece to be recognized as such, it’s just an octave higher.

But at 3:39, he inserts a brand-new motif instead of continuing on with the main theme. Pay attention around 3:54, however, as there’s a tiny rhythmic snippet that will return later. At 3:57, after a build-up in intensity from the previous few measures, we’re treated to another lovely major chord. We continue on with the rhythm from the primary theme, though on different notes, landing on another big major chord at 4:17.

After all that, we quiet down suddenly at 4:22, repeating the primary theme rhythm with the pitches closer to what we heard originally (0:45). It’s a brief quote, though, as we move on toward the closing section of the piece (coda). At 4:36 we hear that small rhythmic snippet from back at 3:54. It echoes at 4:40, with the echo ringing downward in pitch until 4:48, where we hear one last quote from our main theme. Debussy closes the piece with bell-like chords moving up the range of the instrument and some final, quiet notes in the bass.

That wraps up our afternoon with Claude Debussy. I hope you’ll explore more of his music, and feel free to let me know any of your favorite pieces by him so I can listen to them. If you’d like the sheet music for this piece, there’s a public domain version available at IMSLP.org. (Shameless plugs: if you’re a clarinet player, I’ve arranged this for clarinet choir. You can also buy collections of Debussy’s and other composers’ works at Sheet Music Plus and support the blog).

To go along with the above shameless plug, I now have a recording of real people playing my clarinet choir arrangement. Yay!

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Music Appreciation: Sonata for Clarinet Mvt. III by Francis Poulenc

(Third in a three-part series. For part one, click here. For part two, click here)

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet


From the melancholy of the previous movement, we fly into the third movement with exuberance! It’s a tough call which of these two movements I enjoy more, as I love them for very different reasons. The second movement is achingly beautiful, while this one is wild and fun.

We don’t waste any time with an introduction here – we’re immediately off to the races! Theme A starts right at the beginning of the piece. It is essentially in two halves, the first from 0:04-0:14 and the second from 0:15-0:22. The themes in this piece aren’t quite like what we’ve heard in other pieces, in that they don’t always sound like a statement that finishes with a period. A piece like the Sousa march we discussed earlier has very definite themes that have a beginning, middle, and end. Poulenc? Not so much.

At 0:07, listen to the “rips” up to the high notes. We get three of those rips before hitting a peak and coming back down. A common trick in music is to build it up in a series of three repeated phrases then finish the statement. The phrases aren’t necessarily repeated note-for-note; they often alter something about it (pitch, volume, etc.) to keep the momentum going. As you listen to other pieces, see if you notice any “three and finish” situations*.

Theme B begins at 0:22. Does it sound familiar? It should – it’s the light, “bird” theme from the first movement, though altered a little bit. The piano even gets a quick shot at it at 0:28.

We immediately jump into the next theme (C) at 0:30. Really listen from 0:30-0:35. Imagine this bit played much slower and smoother. Do you hear the resemblance to the B theme of the second movement (aka the luscious theme)? I love how Poulenc reuses and modifies that idea and gives it a completely different mood from the last time we heard it. We get to spend a little more time with this theme than the bird theme.

Beginning at 0:51, we start to transition away from the C theme into our next theme (D). We get some new melodic material, but theme C reminds us it’s still there at 0:59. There’s a brief ritard (slowing down) from the piano to usher in the D theme, but it doesn’t stay slow, as the new theme suddenly (subito) launches forward in the original tempo (1:07).

While the new theme reverts back to the original tempo (a tempo), Poulenc changes the mood. This melody is smoother and more lyrical than what we’ve heard so far in this movement. Notice, however, that there’s still some intensity in the piano accompaniment. This section is the longest in this movement (1:07-1:46), with the piano getting a chance to play the melodic line at 1:21 over a low clarinet trill.

At 1:47, Poulenc brings some of the wildness back into the piece. This starts a longish transition/development section that will eventually lead us into the last hurrah of the piece. He inserts some new melodic content during this time, interspersed with motifs we heard earlier. At 2:03, we think we’re going to get a recap of the opening theme of this movement, but we’re wrong. We get just a brief glimpse of it before jumping suddenly to theme C, in which Poulenc repeats the motif but truncates it each time (2:06-2:15). Listen to 2:16-2:18 – Poulenc inserts a bit from the second movement (I even suggested that you remember that bit (3:20-3:26) for later!)

Continuing on, we hear a portion of the D theme (2:21) before returning to the motif we heard at the beginning of this section (2:31). But Poulenc, once again, shows us that everything is related when we reach 2:37 – do you remember that motif from waaaaay back at the beginning of the first movement? I just love how he ties all this together. It’s like when a book or TV series intertwines characters or bits of plot from episodes past.

Done teasing us, Poulenc finally gives us our recap of theme A at 2:40, complete with the three rips. There’s a brief bit of the “bird” theme (B; 2:49), and another shout out to the bit from the second movement that I had you remember (2:50-2:53). From there, we move into the coda section. Poulenc introduces new melodic material to help close the movement (2:54). We get a bit more tension and buildup in the melodic line before getting another “three and finish” trick at 3:04. There’s a very short breath, then a final push to end the piece.

I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring Poulenc’s clarinet sonata. If you’d like to hear the piece in its entirety, please visit the Tonal Diversions playlist on YouTube.

Looking for the sheet music? Visit my link at Sheet Music Plus!

*To be honest, I have no idea if there’s an official musical term for this effect. If anyone knows, please leave a comment!

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Music Appreciation: Sonata for Clarinet Mvt. II by Francis Poulenc

(Second in a three-part series. For part one, click here, for part three, click here)

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet


The second movement in Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is titled “Romanza” (romance). According to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (compiled by Don Michael Randel, ©1978), a romanza is a “short instrumental composition of a lyrical character”. That definition is spot on for this movement. The tempo marking here is très calme (very calm), which should sound familiar as it’s the same marking from the slow section of the first movement.

I love this movement; I think it is absolutely gorgeous. It is so full of emotion: melancholy, hope, heartbreak, peace.

 

 

The intro starts with a soft solo statement from the clarinet, followed by “wailing” that’s underscored by a strong piano chord. The clarinet recollects itself, and continues with the soft melodic lines (0:24), this time with the piano providing accompaniment. The piano continues on its own, briefly, ending the introduction.

We first hear the main theme (A) at 0:52; the clarinet has a lyrical line with the piano playing a calm, steady series of chords underneath (similar to what we heard in the first movement). Poulenc is so effective with this theme – we hear the first bit get repeated (0:52-1:01 & 1:01-1:09), building up tension. We think we’re going to hear it repeated a third time, but Poulenc shifts to a higher note this time at the apex (1:14) giving things a bit more tension. The volume has also increased at this point.

The clarinet shows some power in the second part of the theme (1:28). Poulenc uses repetition again with the run and the notes immediately after, then modifies the last note so it leads into the close of the theme. The volume comes back down and we hear a slight mood shift in the piano’s chords (1:49-1:52).

The piano starts the B theme for us at 1:54. It continues with the steady accompaniment in the bass and middle ranges, but gets the new melody in the high range. Listen for a brief bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds (aka some major chords). This theme is luscious. I just want to wrap myself in it and stay a while.

Okay, I’m back.

An interesting thing to listen for during the B theme (1:54-2:45) is how Poulenc moves the melody between piano and clarinet. It’s not a cut-and-dry “you play the first time, I play the second time” type of interchange. For me, these types of details can add so much more interest to a piece.

At 2:47, we think we’re going back to theme A. But we’re not. We start it, but only get the first bit before quoting from theme B (3:04). We don’t get much of that theme, either, for Poulenc inserts some completely new melodic material at this point (3:20-3:26). (Hint: you may want to remember this new motif)

We do come back to a fuller statement of theme A at 3:29, though in a different key than we’d heard before. We hear the entire first half of that theme before going into more of theme B at 4:02. It’s kept short, though; Poulenc finishes this statement with a nod back to our intro (4:19) as we move into the final section of the piece.

We’re treated to a final recap of theme A at 4:36. But instead of building up like we did when we first heard the theme, he keeps it quiet. When we reach the highest note this time, we get a wonderful major chord – a bit of sweetness (4:58) which we’re treated to a second time at 5:06. The happiness does not last long, however, as we fall back into despair and wailing before finishing the piece with a somber, somewhat unsettling statement.

Don’t miss part 3!

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Music Appreciation: Sonata for Clarinet Mvt. I by Francis Poulenc

Ah, clarinet! I couldn’t wait too much longer to talk about a clarinet piece, but I did have a hard time deciding which of the many I love to talk about first. I’ve settled on Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1962, shortly before Poulenc’s death and published posthumously.

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

My Buffet R-13 Bb clarinet

Side note: Brahms’ clarinet sonatas (Op. 120, Nos. 1 & 2) and Mozart’s clarinet concerto (K. 622) were also written shortly before the respective composers’ deaths. Is it a case of saving the best for last, or that writing a great clarinet work kills you? I guess we’ll never know.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a French composer who was part of a group of musicians and composers nicknamed “Les Six”. He wrote a variety of works: instrumental sonatas, choral works, ballet music, etc. He had planned to write solo pieces for all of the woodwinds, but only completed works for clarinet, oboe, flute, and horn. The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was dedicated à la mémoire de Arthur Honegger (“to the memory of Arthur Honegger”). Honegger was also a member of Les Six. The sonata has three movements in the traditional fast-slow-fast form. Today we’ll discuss just the first movement; I’ll discuss the second and third in future posts.

This first movement is titled “Allegro Tristamente“; allegro means “fast” and tristamente means “sad”.

We start off with a bang, the clarinet scurrying around and the piano interjecting some statements here and there. I consider this an introductory theme. After a loud burst at 0:12, both the piano and clarinet calm down and take a breath. At 0:17, we get a theme that’s long and smooth in the clarinet, with a smooth yet pulsing accompaniment in the piano. This theme is a bit different than what we’ve heard so far on the blog. It doesn’t feel nearly as centered in a key as a piece like Festive Overture does. Yet it is still a theme and, to my ears, is quite melodic once you get used to it. Poulenc introduces a new rhythm at 0:30, giving the theme a bit of a bounce.

Pay attention at 0:33-0:40, as Poulenc gets a lot of mileage out of that theme. He makes some minor changes each time, but the overall theme is identifiable. How many times did you hear it?

We go back and forth between bouncy and straight tempos for a while, with partial quotes of the bouncy theme finishing this section (clarinet partial quote at 1:04; piano quote right after that at 1:07). We get just the briefest of breaks before launching into the next theme at 1:10.

It’s a new theme, but it doesn’t last very long. I feel this part is a little bit of light shining into the window; it sounds a bit like a bird song to me. We return almost immediately to the bouncy theme (1:28). But this time, he expands the part of the theme we heard back at 0:40-0:47. He draws out the held note in the clarinet, giving the piano some time to play, then repeats it with a modified ending (1:25-1:39).

Poulenc lets the piano have a bit of the bouncy theme at 1:39, followed by the light theme in the clarinet at 1:43. But we get just a glimpse of that, because he immediately goes back to the thematic material we’d heard at the beginning of the piece (1:44-1:56). The music stops suddenly, with a long pause before moving into the next section.

When the music begins again at 2:00, we’re in a very different mood. The tempo marking here is très calme (very calm). While there is movement in the accompaniment, and eventually in the clarinet part (2:50), it’s never frantic. We have a wide range of dynamics in here, from pianissimo (very quiet) to forte (loud). Playing softly is often harder than playing loud. It takes a lot of control to play quietly but have enough support so that the tone still sounds good.

This entire section (2:00-5:04) is filled with emotion. I feel a sense of melancholy, of longing, in here. To me, this is where the tristamente is at its full effect. What emotions do you feel as you listen to this part? I do sense another brief ray of light at 4:49 before we plunge back into the long, smooth theme we heard near the beginning of the piece (5:05).

Poulenc truncates the smooth theme to head into the bouncy theme (5:16), but he even interjects the bird song into the middle of that. We hear a little bit more of the bouncy theme before recalling what we heard way back at the beginning of the piece. This time it’s a bit subdued and in the lower part of the clarinet’s range, as opposed to the louder and higher notes we heard earlier. There’s some interplay between the clarinet (playing the introductory theme) and the piano (playing the bouncy theme). Finally, both parts settle down for a last, long minor chord – the piano playing a chord and the clarinet playing a tremolo.

We’ve reached the end of the first movement. To continue to the second movement, click here. To skip to the third movement (and why would you do that? The second movement is lovely!), click here.

 

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Music Appreciation: Serenade op. 22 by Derek Bourgeois

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Wow! My blog is one year old! Thanks to those who have shown your support – I truly appreciate it. So to celebrate, I’m listening to Serenade by Derek Bourgeois (b. 1941), a piece I never tire of hearing (or playing!) I actually had planned on writing about a different piece until I realized it was my anniversary. I’ll come back to that other piece later. The Serenade is calling me now.

Bourgeois originally composed Serenade for organ in 1965, to be played at his wedding (and it was originally titled Wedding March). According to the score for the wind band arrangement that’s published by G&M Brand – British Music Publishers:

Not wishing to allow them the luxury of proceeding in an orderly 2/4, the composer wrote the work in 11/8, and in case anyone felt too comfortable, he changed it to 13/8 in the middle!

The reason I’m adding that quote is because there’s another story out there that Bourgeois composed this so his new bride would be comfortable walking down the aisle with a broken leg. I’m not finding much in the way of support for that tale, so I’m sticking to what the publisher has on the score. But no matter the real story, I think you’ll like this piece. I first heard it played by the Harmonika-Verein Holzgerlingen accordion ensemble in Germany on one of the trips we took with the Crystal Lake Community Band and fell in love with it immediately. Sometimes I pull this piece out at the end of a practice session as a fun way to wrap up the work I’ve done. (Band geek alert: Thanks to the SmartMusic practice system, I get to play it with a full band accompanying me in my living room!)

While Serenade was originally for organ, I’m going to talk about the concert band arrangement today, partly because that’s the arrangement I’m most familiar with. The composer arranged the piece for several other ensembles, including the one for band.

Remember that 5/8 section in Armenian Dances by Alfred Reed? That will feel positively normal after hearing this piece. There isn’t a regular 4/4 measure to be found here. And that’s what makes it so delightful.

Several of the low and middle voices introduce us to the piece with two measures of a lopsided oom-pah in the key of B♭. You should be able to hear 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11 which, due to how fast those little beats are played, is conducted as four larger, although lopsided, beats (otherwise the conductor would look like he’s trying to take off in flight). Bourgeois keeps the same pattern of emphasis throughout this first section (3+3+2+3), unlike Reed who alternated between 2+3 and 3+2.

(Does this talk about beat patterns remind anyone else of the movie Clue?)

At 0:06 we hear the primary theme introduced by the oboe and first clarinets. It’s such a happy little tune, isn’t it? While the accompaniment is holding steady with its oom-pah pattern, notice that around 0:17-18 we get a little bit of syncopation to keep us on our toes. We start to repeat the melody at 0:19, but we’re soon joined by the second oboe and clarinets who briefly take over the melody while the firsts continue with some harmony. They switch roles again briefly before we go into the next theme.

The piccolo and E♭ clarinet take over at 0:32. We get a bit of tension here as Bourgeois introduces an A♭ into the melody, a note that’s not native to the key of B♭. (We had this happen back in my discussion of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man). It’s just enough of a change for the ear to hear that something is different, even if you don’t know that it was specifically an A♭. He briefly lulls us back into the happy melody before bringing up that A♭ again (0:43).

At 0:46, we hear the beginnings of the piccolo/E♭ clarinet theme from 0:32, but notice this time he moves the melodic line up just a bit more before coming back down (0:48). From there, we hear a little more of the theme before he moves into a transition to the next section of the piece. At 1:05 we’re still in 11/8, and the beat pattern is pretty much the same as we’ve been hearing, but he places more stress on each of the main beats, finishing with a flourish up into the 13/8 part of the piece.

Now we have a new beat pattern: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13 (or 3+3+2+2+3 as shown in five larger beats; 1:08). While we’re in a new meter of 13/8, the theme still sounds similar to what we’ve been hearing all along. At this point, almost the entire band joins in. We hear echoes of both the first theme and the piccolo theme; notice how the repeated note from 1:23-1:26 adds tension? Like an itch that needs to be scratched. Then we get a buildup that travels first into 11/8, then a measure of 7/8 (can’t let us get complacent!) before making the final jump back into 11/8 (1:38-1:43).

Ah, 1:43, where the upper winds get trills and flourishes and the bass voices, many of whom have been oom-pahing this whole time, get to actually play… the melody! Well, a taste of it anyway, as it’s altered a bit in order to lead into the final push of the piece. At 1:56 we hear the final big statement of the theme, played by the upper brass and woodwinds (the basses have gone back to their usual oom-pah role). We get a nice alteration of the repeated note motif at 2:10, giving us one last bit of tension before easing up at 2:16 with reduced instrumentation and dynamics.

We continue to get quieter, hearing a horn solo continue the theme with clarinets and saxes as accompaniment (2:23). We continue fading out, but Bourgeois isn’t done teasing us yet. He finally throws us a “normal” time signature (12/8, which is four equal beats instead of the lopsided 11/8 we finally got used to), but he manipulates the rhythm so we still aren’t completely comfortable. He finally takes pity on us and closes the piece with a cute flourish from just a few instruments. You almost think he’s still pulling your leg and that something else will happen, but he lets us rest after that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed celebrating my anniversary with me. Thanks again to all those who have visited my blog over the past year!

P.S. I thought some of you might want to hear this played on organ, since that’s the original instrument Bourgeois wrote for. Enjoy!

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