Sunday, October 4, 2020

Stepping Into the Future: Dancing and Improvising As We Go

It's hard to believe the last time we had a chance to gather in public and listen to live music was in February! While that may feel like over 610 days ago, the Pandemic has changed everything in our lives, not the least for many of us the ability to play and listen to music in a live setting shared with friends. And while we may not yet be “back to normal,” even if it feels like we're dancing on the wrong end of a pin, a journey of a thousand miles still begins with a single step.

Mark Markham
And so we start the season with pianist Mark Markham in a recital starting at 7:30 on Tuesday, October 6th in Whitaker Center – where there's ample opportunity to maintain social distancing – and while lots of things have changed (and will no doubt continue to change as the season unfolds) since the announcement of the 2020-2021 Season, we all take a deep breath and move forward.

Mark Markham is at home as a recitalist, concerto soloist, collaborative pianist who performed with the late soprano Jessye Norman for twenty years, as well as a jazz pianist. He offers a program called "Cances and Improvisations" with works by Bach, Ravel, Chopin, and Poulenc before closing with a series of Improvisations from "The American Songbook." This program "celebrates the unique freedom of expression found by great composers in transcending both genres while creating evocative and beguiling musical gems.

You may remember Mr. Markham's last visit to Harrisburg in 2018, when he appeared as a soloist with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra performing Ravel's Piano Concerto, and gave piano and vocal masterclasses at Messiah University, then played an unforgettable recital for MSC's audience including Liszt's monumental Piano Sonata.

A rare late-March snowstorm made it impossible for some of you to attend Mr. Markham's recital then. Here is a recording of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B Major, Op. 32, No. 11, from that performance

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Please note that TICKET SALES for upcoming Oct 6 concert presenting Mark Markham are CLOSED due to the current PA indoor gathering limits for performing venues. Option to purchase the 30-day access to either audio or videorecording of the performance is still available via EventBrite. For more information, contact Anne or call 717-221-9599.

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So let's begin with Bach. Here is Andras Schiff recorded ten years ago playing the C Minor “French Suite” with which Mark Markham begins his program.


Why Bach's “French Suites” are called French Suites is bit like the old joke about the French Horn (which is German) and the English Horn (which is French). Twelve years after Bach died, a biographer first referred to his set of six keyboard suites as French Suites because they were written in the French Style. Presumably, this has been explained, the different dances making up the various suites are French dances. Of course, the very first dance is an Allemande (which means “German” in French). 

The second movement is a Courante (in French) but Bach often spells it Corrente (in Italian): in these suites, however, he always uses the French spelling. The stately Sarabande was originally a lively dance with castanets that reached Spain by way of Guatemala and Mexico in the 16th Century. The Menuet (or Minuet) is actually a French dance and the concluding Gigue is not far removed from its origin in the English Jig! 

The last of these French Suites also includes a Polonaise, which is of Polish origins as the name implies, but it is far removed from the national spirit one hears reflected in the piano works of Frederic Chopin.

Now, each of these became stylized as courtly dances with their own special steps with specific time signatures (duple or triple time) and rhythmic patterns. By the time they became instrumental movements, they were no longer intended to be “danced” at those aristocratic or upper-class social gatherings we see in BBC adaptations of period dramas, but their origins in The Dance were unmistakable.

(For the sake of confusion, compare the French Suite's dances with those in Bach's six English Suites, here which were inspired by his interest in French lute music.)

Unlike classical-era composers who would set out a project to write and publish a set of six string quartets, say, Bach would write his suites whenever he felt like it and later, when in a cataloguing mood, gather them together in some kind of compendium like the six individual concertos that became The Brandenburg Concertos (even the great Mass in B Minor is a compilation of mass movements written over a span of years and not initially intended as a single work). The French Suites were composed between 1722 and 1725 (the first could be dated earlier, there's no way of knowing), while the English Suites are earlier, written between 1713 and 1714.

Perhaps the major distinction, if you compare this 2nd Suite in C Minor to more familiar keyboard works of Bach, like The Well-Tempered Clavier, is the texture. It's entirely right-hand-melody/left-hand-bass-line throughout – what we call “two-part writing” – not playing actual chords but implying them in the way the lines move, giving us the aural perception of chords. Yet while there's none of the dense texture we associate with fugal writing – follow along with this adaptation of the C Minor Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier  – it is intensely “polyphonic” with two entirely independent voices in which the left-hand is not subservient to plunking out the bass-notes of the harmony.

Compare this also with the opening of the Chopin Andante spianato (coming up after the Ravel) where the melody in the right hand is supported by a choral accompaniment in the left hand. Bach's style is called polyphonic (two or more voices or layers); Chopin's is called homophonic (one melodic layer with accompaniment).

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Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales (which nicely translates to “Noble & Sentimental Waltzes”) is a suite of eight contrasting waltzes composed for piano in 1911. They take their inspiration in the strings of waltzes written by Franz Schubert, the Valses nobles (in French despite his Viennese location) in 1823 and the Valses sentimentales presumably in 1827. While Schubert's were intended to be danced to at house parties – one reason they'd been dismissed as “salon music” – it be unwise to roll up the rug and try dancing to Ravel's waltzes, though they are wonderfully choreographable. Schubert couldn't dance to save his soul but he loved to sit at the piano and improvise for hours so his friends could enjoy a good dance party. Ravel initially had other ideas, here...


 From that clatter-bang of an opening that set its initial audience's teeth on edge, to the magic of its dream-like ending, Ravel explored different ways of “waltzing” in its variety of tempos and moods, even in its styles, mixing various “modernist” techniques with impressionistic harmonies. He was fascinated by the waltz, beginning work on what eventually became the famous tone-poem La Valse as early as 1906 – he eventually completed and published it in 1919, after World War I – and this set explores many of his eclectic viewpoints but without specifying which are “noble” and which, “sentimental” (one assumes the slow ones are “sentimental” in our sense of the word, but not all the fast ones seem so “noble” to us). The final waltz is an Epilogue, with fragments of the previous waltzes floating through our consciousness before fading into memory.

There's the famous story of their premiere at a 1911 concert where all-new works were presented anonymously so listeners could judge the music on what they heard rather than on any pre-conceived reactions to the composers' names. Of course, the whole point, eventually, boiled down to trying to figure out who wrote what!

Judging from initial reactions, given the boos and cat-calls during the performance, many thought the pianist was hitting wrong notes on purpose, that it was a nose-thumbing parody. As Ravel recalled it, “a minute majority” guessed he was to blame, though Erik Satie and other French modernists of the previous generation like D'Indy and Charles Koechlin were among those suggested (whoever could imagine Satie writing such a piece!?). Of the other composers on the program, none are well-known to modern American audiences and without further research I'm at a loss to figure out what François Couperin was doing there...

Ravel sat in a box surrounded by friends (mostly amateur musicians and socialites) who soon joined in the cat-calls, “protesting indignantly over the presentation of such mediocre buffoonery.” As all composers on the program had promised to keep their involvements a secret, Ravel remained silent. But after the performance and before the Big Reveal, a well-known critic and supporter of Ravel's told him (to his face), “You are mistaken in trying to dupe us by putting such a 'lemon' on this program. Nobody has been fooled. It is obviously the work of an amateur who has heard some waltzes by Chopin and intended imitating them. But the total absence of craftsmanship is too evident. It shows itself so clearly! He is a shabby fellow, this composer! We shouldn't be taken for imbeciles, you know!” and then stormed off. (Related by Emile Vuillermoz in his biography on Fauré who overheard this conversation.)

Not surprisingly, while giving credit to Schubert for his inspiration, Ravel prefaced this score with the quote, “the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation.”

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Chopin's piano music hardly needs an introduction. The Andante spianato and Grand Poloniase may, however, benefit from some explanation. It began life as a Polonaise for piano and orchestra, begun before Chopin left Warsaw and finished in 1831 during a short stay in Vienna (which proved dissatisfying so he moved on to Paris). Then, in 1834, invited to give his first public performance with orchestra in Paris, he chose the Grand Polonaise and added a solo piano introduction to better show off the lyrical side of his playing. This, he called Andante spianato , a rippling accompaniment supporting one of Chopin's most gorgeous melodies. The rarely seen term spianato means “smoothly.” It's a perfect example of how the style of bel canto opera inspired Chopin's pianistic lyricism. The Polonaise is more often played today as a solo work throughout.


Chopin – whose father was French, emigrating to Poland as a teenager in 1787 – was a Polish composer in his heart even if most of his short career located him in Paris. Many of his pieces are what we call “stylized dances” – his waltzes, for example, wouldn't be suitable for standard ballroom dancing – and very often capture the essence of Poland's national musical voice. Keep in mind Poland at this time did not exist: it had been subdivided and divvied up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria so many times, it was difficult to figure out what was left of its proud and ancient heritage, at one time a huge nation stretching over Eastern Europe. When Chopin was born in the Duchy of Warsaw, it was still dominated by Russia, becoming a puppet state of the Empire in 1815. It was not reinstated as an independent nation until 1918, after World War I. Interestingly, considering Chopin's fame as a Polish composer in the wider world, the first Prime Minister of an independent Poland was the internationally acclaimed pianist, Ignacy Paderewski.

Chopin was born in 1810, and his father had become a teacher of French to aristocratic families. Nicholas Chopin (spelled Szopen in Polish) would only allow Polish to spoken in his home. His love for his adopted country had a serious impact on the boy.

His first composition at the age of 7 was a Polonaise, harking back to the grand days of aristocratic Poland. His Grand Polonaise Op. 22 (before he added the Andante spianato) was his third polonaise, written when he was 20-21 years old. In addition to the earlier Introduction & Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano (Op.3), there are seven polonaises for solo piano published in his lifetime, the last completed in 1846; there are three earlier ones published posthumously and perhaps six or seven more that remain unpublished.

While the brilliant polonaise of Op.22 grabs the attention, the spinning line of the opening Andante (for years, I thought spianato meant “spinning” as a spider spins a web, that fine, delicate silken thread!) is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the piece. This vocal-inspired melody, endlessly unfolding, is a hallmark of the romantic style and the inspiration to every generation of composers specializing in piano music to follow – just try to imagine Rachmaninoff or early Skryabin without Chopin!

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Improvisation is something less common in classical music today than it had been. In the Baroque days, keyboard players frequently “made up” the harmonies they would play which the composer supplied by the composers' shorthand notation called “figured bass” (a hoary subject and bane of most freshman theory students to this day). It did not mean they were “creating their part out of thin air” – as long as they stayed within the parameters of this shorthand, it was more like “realizing” the composers' intentions.

When I was in college, my composition teacher was delighted to discover a Baroque composer – I've forgotten who, I think he was English but his work pre-dated Handel's Messiah – had written a trio sonata in which the keyboard part (which consisted solely of the bass-line and this figured-bass shorthand) could be realized to quote exactly Handel's famous “Hallelujah” Chorus. It's not a question of plagiarism in either direction: Handel wrote a fairly standard and extremely memorable harmonic progression which this trio sonata composer (and no doubt thousands of others) had also used. It was just amusing to be listening to this trio sonata and hearing in the keyboard part a quotation from the “Hallelujah” Chorus. But any keyboard player could have realized it to come up with different notes.

There's also a frequently misunderstood story about Mozart and two of his Violin Sonatas, one of which was performed before the Emperor in 1784. As with the G Major Sonata (K.394) in 1781, when Mozart admitted to his father he hadn't had time to complete the work in time for its performance, he just wrote out the violin part and left the piano part blank. When the Emperor looked at the score of the B-flat Sonata (K.454) on the piano after the first performance, he was amazed (and somewhat perturbed) to see any notes in the piano part (compared to “too many notes” as he once complained).

So when I hear, say, radio announcers saying (in absolute awe) that Mozart “completely made up the piano part on the spot,” I want to throw things! No – it was all in his head, fully composed. Yes, there may have been spots he could fill in or even make some changes along the way, but it was all guided by (a.) what he had already given the violinist in terms of harmony and rhythm, and (b.) what he had already composed in his head but didn't get a chance to write it out later. That's one of the reasons he could write an overture the night before an opera's premiere: it was already composed, it just wasn't down on paper yet – it was a matter of transcription, not an act of instant composition. And not improvisation, as we normally consider the term.

Today, there are very few pianists who are going to sit down an improvise a cadenza for a Mozart or Beethoven piano concerto which was the norm in those days. In fact, unlike most concert performers of the 19th Century who often wrote concertos for themselves to play, it would be amusing to see what Itzhak Perlman or Joshua Bell could come up with if they were asked to write a concerto for themselves.

But in the world of jazz, improvisation – whether made up on the spot or working tangentially with other musicians, the jazz combo a form of chamber music, after all – is standard procedure. But again it's all within various structural features already established and “filled in” accordingly. Once they establish a key and a meter, maybe a mood, there are different patterns of chords (I love how in jazz they're called “changes” rather than “progressions”) and even prescribed measure numbers within which they work. It's still not blithely sitting down and pulling something out of thin air (or anywhere else). It's like weaving a tapestry: there's a pattern, there's a plan, but how you implement them, that's up to you.

And so Francis Poulenc's 15 Improvisations, written over a span from 1932 to 1959 (he died in 1963), are a slightly different creative stew. Just as Schubert could sit down and improvise hours of dances for his friends and then write down some of them later on to publish, many composers might sit down and “noodle around” at the piano to come up with some ideas, then take the ones they like, write them down and, sooner or later, come back to them and flesh them out.

Poulenc, in his own right a fine pianist, wrote: “Many of my pieces have failed because I know too well how to write for the piano ...[A]s soon as I begin writing piano accompaniments for my songs, I begin to be innovative. ...It is the solo piano that somehow escapes me. With it I am a victim of false pretenses.” Often not taken seriously because of his light-hearted, often tongue-in-cheek style, Poulenc was very aware of the intellectual involvement in his innate sense of creativity. The question was making it sound natural, effortless – not intellectual.

These improvisations probably began as just such an exercise: try to create something on the spot, something spontaneously, then work it into something that sounds like a finished piece, something one could argue whether the heart or the brain came first.

He called them “improvisations,” however they began, however they evolved, to avoid anything too specific or too structured, formally, keeping them short and uncomplicated.

Mr. Markham will play six of this group of fifteen – including an homage to Schubert (No. 12) and one to Edith Piaf (No. 15 from 1959) which, Poulenc being Poulenc, makes perfect sense.


Pascal Rogé is the pianist in this performance of all fifteen improvisations. You can locate the one's Mr. Markham will be playing by scooting the time-bar across to these timings:

No. 1 (beginning) No. 7 (at 9:17) No. 12-15 (at 17:17 to the end)

And one more improvisation, this one (bringing the program not quite full circle) based on the name of Bach with a rather cheeky waltz finished on October 8th, 1932, and dedicated to Vladimir Horowitz.


Robert Schumann made a frequent habit of crafting musical motives out of names: his Carnaval is full of them, taking what musical pitches exist in the name or substituting other pitches for those that don't. It might seem like cheating, but you could also use solfege syllables where possible: that way, a name with an LA- in it could be represented by the pitch A which is la in solfege, or RE- which becomes – do-re-mi – the pitch D.

But Schumann didn't invent this: Bach was doing it with his own name a century earlier (and even then, this was nothing new). So how do you play B-A-C-H in musical pitches? H? In German, just to make it confusing, they use B for B-flat and B-natural becomes H. So, you can spell it B-flat – A – C – B-natural. Poulenc spells it out in the upper notes of the right hand's first three measures in his little waltz. At one point, he plays it in reverse and then, at the end, there's even a pile-up of B-ACH as a chord.

To end the program, Mark Markham will play “Improvisations from The American Songbook” which he'll announce from the stage. And so I'll let him do just that.

– Dick Strawser