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!

Sheet Music Plus Homepage

Get a recurring 10% discount!

Save

Bonus Features: The Alcotts

Finally, the bonus features post! I hadn’t forgotten that I wanted to do this; sometimes “real life” gets in the way.

Here’s another video of the piano version. Part of the reason I chose this one is because you can hear the difference in interpretation between this performance and the one by Ives that I used in the previous post:

 

I also wanted to give you a chance to hear the band transcription. This arrangement was my introduction to the piece. The end section is quite powerful when you have an entire band playing it! Listen, though, to how the different instruments bring out the various melodies.

 

This last one is just fun. How would “Chopsticks” sound if arranged by Charles Ives? Richard Grayson gives it a shot.

 

Sheet Music Plus Homepage

Get a recurring 10% discount!

Music Appreciation: The Alcotts (Concord Sonata) by Charles Ives

After a lot of band and orchestra music, let’s move on to something completely different: a piano solo.

Charles Ives, 1913

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Specifically, The Alcotts by Charles Ives, an American composer who lived from 1874 – 1954. He had a “day job” at an insurance company while pursing music in his free time – something many musicians (including myself) can relate to. His father, George, was a bandleader, and he encouraged Charles’s musicality. The story I’d heard in college was that George would play a song in one key and make Charles sing the same song in another key at the same time. Combined tonalities and other experiments certainly show up in a lot of Ives’ music – if he was arranging something as simple as “Mary had a little lamb”, I’m sure he’d manage to have Mary singing in one key and rhythm while her lamb was off cavorting in some other key and rhythm. And yet it would all make an absurd sort of sense.

Like so many other pieces I’ll talk about on the blog, I was first introduced to Ives’ music in college band. We’d played his Circus Band March, then later on played an arrangement of The Alcotts. This piece is the third movement in his second piano sonata (the “Concord”). The four movements are inspired by literary figures from New England: I) Emerson, II) Hawthorne, III) The Alcotts and IV) Thoreau.

Although the sound quality on this recording is a bit fuzzy, I really wanted to use this particular one as it is Ives himself playing his own piece. If you’d like to follow along with the sheet music, check out the PDF at IMSLP.org

As you listen to the piece, note that Ives uses the famous motif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony frequently. This motif appears in each of the four movements of the sonata. Ives also quotes other pieces throughout, and I’ll admit I don’t know them all. But I guarantee you’ll recognize one other later in the piece.

We don’t often think of musical works such as sonatas or symphonies having a cast of characters, but this is one of the exceptions. To me, the main character of this piece is Beth Alcott’s piano. As Ives himself wrote in Essays Before a Sonata:

“And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony…

…And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms – the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day – though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above) – a strength of hope that never gives way to despair – a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.”

We hear the Beethoven’s Fifth quote right away. Gently, though, and expanded with beautiful harmonies underneath. The theme also relates to two hymn tunes: “Martyn” and “Missionary Chant.” There’s a bit of tension at 0:26, but it doesn’t last long. The bass line (left hand on piano) begins to play repeated chords which, to me, feel rather like a drone. On top of that we hear what Ives calls the “human faith melody” (0:33), a tune that he uses in the other movements as well. The melody lasts until 0:57, and includes quotes from both Beethoven’s fifth symphony and piano sonata no. 29 (as per James B. Sinclair).

At 0:58-059, do you hear the “chime”? Ives plays it very quietly, so you may have to crank the volume to catch it. To me, it’s reminiscent of a grandfather clock, or perhaps a distant church bell. It’s one of those moments where Ives seems to reinforce the idea of a girl playing piano in the parlor of her home, with all the other sounds of daily life happening around her.

We move on with a short bit of new melodic content which leads us into another statement of the human faith melody at 1:08. This time, the melody gets louder and a bit more frantic. We don’t get to finish the entire theme, as Ives spends time developing the Beethoven motifs. Listen for the repeated rhythm while he changes which pitches are used. We continue to get louder and faster – Ives’ written direction in the score actually says, “in a gradually excited way”.

At 1:46, we hear the first climax of this section, with a repeat of the Beethoven’s Fifth motif. Here’s another instance of Ives painting a mental picture for us. Do you hear the seemingly random little plinks of high notes here? The “wrong” notes are very much correct and intentional. These notes were explained to me as recreating the idea of the old family piano, with tuning issues and some sticky keys, which lead to hearing some sounds that weren’t meant to be played. Another image that comes to my mind is a young child who is “helping” the pianist out by slyly pressing keys near the end of the keyboard (chances are, if you’ve played a piano near a youngster, you’ve had this happen!)

The music continues to work itself into a frenzy, getting faster and louder until we reach the real climax of the section at 1:59. Notice that we still get some rogue plinks here. But we quiet back down and hear another snippet of the human faith melody (2:09). Ives changes it up a bit at 2:14-21, but we do go on to hear the rest of the theme with some interesting harmonies added to it. We finally rest a bit at 2:37 on a dominant seventh chord (B♭, D, F, and A♭) that helps us to transition into the next section of the piece. (In the printed music, there’s another plink here, but I’m not hearing it in the recording. I’m not sure if it’s because it just doesn’t come through in the recording or if Ives didn’t play it. I’ve read that he didn’t always play this piece the same way.)

The section beginning at 2:41 pays homage to the other songs that Beth played. I love this melody. It’s rather straightforward, but Ives includes some tasty harmonies. At 2:51, we hear a snippet of “Loch Lomond” (“…never meet again…”, but in a slightly different rhythm), which leads into the quote I know you’ll recognize: “Here Comes the Bride” (Wagner’s Bridal Chorus, 2:56) We move a bit faster with new melodic content, ending on that same dominant seventh chord at 3:11 (this is another spot where the printed music has a plink but I don’t hear it in the recording).

We’re treated to that lovely melody from 2:41 again, this time beginning at 3:15. We hear most of it, but again Ives doesn’t let us finish the theme and takes us into some more developmental material. We start working into a frenzy again, this time using moving melodic lines instead of block chords. But the idea is similar – it moves us toward the final climax of the piece. We get closer at 4:01; to me, I feel we gain a bit more stability here, with solid chords in the bass and repeated rhythms in the upper notes. Those repeated notes coincide with the pattern found at the beginning of the human faith melody, and that melody is what we get at 4:04. It’s the slightly altered version we heard back at 2:09, but we get to hear the entire theme this time. The final climax occurs at 4:22, with huge, powerful chords playing the Beethoven portion of the human faith melody. That power continues until 4:38 or so, when we settle back down into the gentleness of the beginning of the piece and finish the human faith melody. Ives finishes the piece with a lovely bit of melody that takes us down into a soft and satisfying C major chord.

For that era, Ives was quite experimental in his work. In this piece, he rarely used time signatures or barlines, which lends to the ebb-and-flow feel of the piece. At one point, he has different key signatures for the right hand (two flats) and the left hand (four flats). He uses standard key and time signatures during the homage, which seems to befit the notion that Beth is playing from some songbooks. And while he has used standard time signatures, he’s also not afraid to use an unusual one: 4½ over 4! (It’s “legal” – you just have four and a half beats (4½ quarter notes = 9 eighth notes) with the quarter note getting the beat).

And there ends my discussion of The Alcotts by Charles Ives. Check out the bonus features post for some other renditions of the piece.

Sheet Music Plus Homepage

Get a recurring 10% discount!

Save

Music Appreciation: Can We Learn to Hear?

Thanks to NPR reporting about this study, I came across this article:

Study: Hearing Music as Beautiful Is a Learned Trait – Lindsay Abrams – The Atlantic.

I found it fascinating, and quite apropos for this blog.  I know my musical tastes have certainly evolved over time, there are certain composers whose work I “get” more now.  Like Debussy.  It took me a while to warm up to his tonalities (I certainly didn’t seek out his music in high school).  I don’t think it was until I played an arrangement of his Sarabande from Pour le Piano in a clarinet choir after I graduated college that I felt more comfortable with him.  A few years later I played a band arrangement of his Engulfed Cathedral, which helped me even more to understand and like his music.  Heck, I went so far as to do my own transcription of Sarabande for my current clarinet choir.  I hope my fellow musicians can enjoy the piece as I have.

For me, rehearsing and performing the piece lead to understanding it better.  Having someone else (the director) choose the piece forced me into studying it; I probably would have just seen “Debussy” and tossed it aside thanks to my preconceived notions about and limited exposure to his work.  Studying music theory for my undergraduate degree helped as well.  I know of a few people who, once they know theory, get distracted too much by identifying all the chords and such as they listen.  Not me.  And I’d wager that, for most of us, learning about something helps us to understand and enjoy something more, not less.  I can still be swept away by the music, even if I happen to know the chord progression underneath it.

I’ll admit I still have trouble with some of the ultra-modern music out there.  I do need some sort of melodic hook, although my definition of melody is quite loose.  And maybe I just need to listen to and study more of it for it to make sense to me.  There will still be music of all genres and ages that I just won’t like.  There’s one band piece in particular that I’ve played several times now and I would be perfectly happy never to play (or hear!) that piece again, although my dislike doesn’t necessarily have to do my familiarity with the chords in it.  There’s another piece that I don’t hate quite as much due to playing it a few times, but I’m certain I will never feel the need to talk about it on this blog.

Part of my motivation behind this blog is to give you a starting point to make some musical discoveries, regardless of your musical knowledge.  Perhaps I can help ease you into some of the “weirder” stuff and show you that dissonance can be delicious.  When I decided to talk about Malcolm Arnold’s Three Shanties I did ask myself if I was going to quickly into the “ugly” notes.  But I decided that’s the piece I really wanted to discuss, weird notes or not.  I don’t expect everyone to develop the same love as I have for any of the pieces I discuss, but I do hope you’ll at least give them a chance.  Maybe even revisit some of the ones you didn’t like initially in a few months or a year to see if anything’s changed.  If you still don’t like it, that’s okay – there’s certainly no shortage of music in this world!

I believe I know which piece I’ll discuss next.  I might not get to it right away, as my calendar has gotten quite full thanks to some extra rehearsals and performances, plus my students’ solo and ensemble competitions and a dear friend’s wedding.  I’ll try to be back soon!

Sheet Music Plus Homepage

Get a recurring 10% discount!

Save

Save

Save