Sunday, September 11, 2011

It Couldn't Be Any Simpler Than This

One of my current objectives is attainment of proficiency to play these pieces; the first set of Songs Without Words (Lieder ohne Worte ) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), his Op 19, written in the years 1829-30 by the then 20 year old composer. There are some remarkable things going on in this music. Just to give you an idea, I'm posting links to Daniel Barenboim's capable performances:

No. 3 Molto allegro e vivace in A major ("Hunting Song")
Schirmer's Standard Edition
There are eight books of six songs each of these Songs Without Words. It is usual to try and give some of them to pupils to strengthen certain perceptual and motor skills as they attain greater physical ability to play the piano, but from a performance standpoint each of the books offers a condensed set of fascinating music to challenge pianist and audience alike.

Of the six in this first book, I'm particularly partial to the fifth. This is really a condensed sonata allegro and it is stunning in design and intricate but not impossible to play. Everything in Mendelssohn seems to follow some predictable and logical basis or puzzle, once one attains it, for example the left hand stretches in the “development” section of this movement, while not impossible are not as immediately determinable on the keyboard as one might suppose. Mendelssohn might have had a naturally wider spread in his left hand than in his right as also seems evident from some of his writing.

In style, there are a few things he shares with Schumann, but I see a basis for Mendelssohn's style in Beethoven and Bach with a hint from Mozart to try and stay within bounds. The "bounds of exuberance" one encounters in the second half of the first, the entire third, the “hymn in the village in the deep Alpine valley” of the fourth, the compact use of so much subtlety in the famous sixth, are all the unique personal touches of this composer. These are piano vignettes that together may take a year or so to learn and play comfortably and a lifetime to learn to interpret.

I certainly like Barenboim's preferences as inspiration for a starting place, although what I have in mind is more a combination of ardour and conviction as in this music we are in that critical cusp of styles that included Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. I also have Perri Knize  to thank for the inspiration to investigate these pieces. I certainly wish her all the best as she may be studying these pieces herself or has already done so. May I in turn recommend to her and of course others, the work of that “Chopin of the North,” Edvard Grieg. His Lyric Pieces are in many respects the direct outgrowth of what Mendelssohn so ably planted; the idea of incorporating groups of piano pieces in books issued periodically throughout a composer's career, notebooks of pianistic achievement during a time in which naturalistic and realistic portrayal of human emotion was a paramount consideration, a preference and an understanding of which seem so foreign to most these days.  

Henle's Urtext Edition
I usually set at least three of these pieces to go through at least once and sometimes twice in one half hour practice session at the piano.  I'm still learning them but am in process of committing them to memory now, so I will work with and without the music.  But what is critical is to avoid over-kill.  When that happens, I get up form the piano and do something else, because I do not want any impressions made on my subconscious mind that would distract me from learning how best to perform these often deceptively easy pieces  (they aren't easy).  The editions pictured are the most often encountered edition (Schirmer's) and the best printed one (Henle) to my knowledge.   


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the recommendation of the Grieg, David. I have recently polished a Grieg Waltz and I am very much in love with his work now. I will look for the Lyric Pieces collection.