Greensleeves + 3 Variations
After this traditional tune, I play three variations on the piano. I composed these variations in 2020.
The title of variation 1, is: “The Twos”. This name comes from a two-note chord in the right hand which acts as punctuation, whilst the left hand plays the melody in the lower part of the keyboard emulating a sonorous cello. These two-note chords are a tone or semitone apart throughout, except on one occasion. These rather terse sounding chords are always forced. The whole variation sounds like a tussle between mellow and sour.
The title of variation 2, is: “The Slide”. In this variation, the left hand literary slides up and down the keyboard as fast as possible. After each slide, the right hand plays a single note which is held for a judged length of time, acting as a distinct contrast to the quick notes of the sliding left hand. The struck single notes are held depressed for as long as artistically possible. Imagine these notes being played on the down bow of a violin. NB: the slides are flamboyant, free and need not be accurate.
The title of variation 3, is: “The Agitator alla Toccata”. A translation of this would be: “to be played agitatedly in a manner where touch and virtuosic technique is required”. This is firmly a postmodern variation on the traditional Greensleeves tune. The pulsating left hand hammers out the melody and combines obsessively repeating notes at certain key junctures with continuous sweeps of passagework. It can be seen, and heard, as relentless driving machine-like kinetic movements at a moderately fast pace. Although the right hand retains some resemblance to the vertical movement of the melody, the notes are dissonant. On their own, one could hear a logic but, when played with the left hand the whole piece almost does not make sense. Highly entertaining with an emphatic end.
Click here to hear me play: Greensleeves + 3 Variations
The traditional folk song, Scarborough Fair, dates back to Medieval times and refers to an old fair in Scarborough, Yorkshire. The market fair included traders, merchants, entertainers and food vendors, starting from the 14th century until the 18th century. Today, several fairs are held in remembrance of the original.
‘Scarborough Fair’ Lyrics
The lyrics in ‘Scarborough Fair’ are about unrequited love; a man trying to attain his true love. The young man requests impossible tasks from his former lover, saying that if she can perform them, he will take her back. In return, she requests impossible tasks of him, saying she will perform hers when he performs his. In the Middle Ages, the herbs mentioned in the song represented virtues that were important to the lyrics. Parsley was comfort, sage was strength, rosemary was love and thyme was courage.
Simon and Garfunkel’s Version
In my re-imagined/re-composed version and recording of the traditional tune, thought was given to the costume and the videography. During the editing light balance and overall visual appearance were adjusted to convey a dreamlike, fairytale atmosphere. When I was recording the vocals it seemed, at times, as though I was fighting an invisible enemy. This gave my voice a different quality: (a) a sense of weak, youthful innocence similar to a feeling of indolence (Scarborough Fair), (b) a strong, macho/masculine presence similar to a military officer recounting events on a battlefield (Canticle).
Click here for the video: Scarborough Fair/Canticle
🎵 Margaret, take me to the hills
🎵 Margaret, take me to the place
🎵 Where we are running
🎵 As fast as fast can be
Margaret, take me to the place
Where I can see you
🎵 Margaret, take me to the wind
🎵 Margaret, take me to the place
🎵 Where we are flying
🎵 As high as high can be
Margaret, take me to the place
Where I can see you
Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
This is the most famous piece of organ music ever written!
From the very first notes it demands your attention. But, was it really composed by Johann Sebastian Bach? Well, surely everybody knows it was because, after all, that’s how we came to know the piece.
However, a very small ‘however,’ one or two quarters have made remarks about this music that are interesting.
Bombastic, outlandish and downright outrageous?
Sweeping, catchy proverbs after sweeping, catchy proverbs?
And, would maestro Bach ever compose in such a style so different from all his other output?
Answering the first question, my thoughts are that it is extremely flamboyant, debonair and daring.
To answer the second question I would say that, at times I couldn’t bear to hear the piece. It sounds so like the music you would hear when you are put on ‘hold’ on a customer services call. Or even a piece of elevator music. One cannot escape the fact that it is, as the title implies, virtuosic.
And to answer the third question let me say that, all great composers have the ability to write in a wide variety of different styles — the wider the variety, the greater the genius. Whether the quieter nuances or the spicy fireworks, if one can compose without limits, one is unlimited — a master. It is my opinion that Bach probably wrote the Toccata before breakfast. A mere exercise a virtuoso could dash off to dazzle and impress anyone who happens to be within the church’s vicinity.
For this post I will be taking the first movement, the Toccata.
Not all recordings are equal.
I have been enthusiastic and passionate about music, particularly the ‘classical’ genre, for my entire adult life, and have come to realise that different recordings of a piece can vary, one to the other — and quite a bit, too.
The piece under the spotlight here was composed for church organ, probably before 1708. There are also arrangements for orchestra, solo violin and the piano. It has been said that the moment a piece of music is re-arranged from its original, it has been re-composed.
I see the piano as the musical instrument of my choice since 1990. An eminent guitarist said a few years ago, “Whilst stringed music is for the emotions, piano music is for the intellect”. So, join me on this particular musical excursion, on the piano, with Bach’s legendary Toccata.
In my CD library (yes, they do still exist) are four CDs that include recordings of the Toccata on the piano (see below). Over the years I have developed a musical palette whereby I can tell within the first few bars of a recording whether it will be satisfying and pleasurable. If only I had all the ultimate recordings then I could rest! I want all of them — now!
As you can see below, there are four different publications of the Bach piece in my library – all arranged for solo piano.
These publications, with the help of recordings to an extent, shows one how to play the notes. However, playing the music is an entirely different game – I love affair – making the notes leave the page and into the ears.
Music is to be enjoyed and not endured. Making music is not a mechanical process played by automatron robots, but a dance between musician and listener, between a man and a woman. The heart, the intellect and the spirit of a person are all at play. To me, it is all about communication – two-way communication.
Music is nostalgic — enjoying the past now. Music is predictive — drawing down from tomorrow and enjoying it now. Music is art.
And how does one translate two notes on a page to two notes on the airwaves? Answer: interpretation. What statements are you going to make? What phrasing are you going to articulate? Are there any emphasis you could bring to highlight a point or two? And what is the overall shape, the story you want to tell: the starting point, the endpoint, and the interim?
And so to my interpretation of the Toccata from Bach’s BWV 565…
Thirty-five years ago since I became aware of the work, I am now hearing it call out to me: “Rubato!” and, “More rubato!” And sometimes I never pay the stolen time back! As I have been familiar with the piece for such a long time, I am instilling more musicality into performances — which, of course, is inseparable from elements of my personality. And so, naturally, I have made recordings – just for fun.
The last recording I made brought with it a surprise. Up until that date I had always played the opening with the same notes. But, for the first time it dawned on me to play the same passage with extra notes. I tried it. And, it worked! With these new notes came a new interpretation on how they should sound. In short, there is a deliberate slowing down of the opening, together with increased volume dynamics, and becoming more emphatic as the music descends down the keyboard into the sonorous depths of D minor… And that’s just the opening!
Look out for another exaggerated detachment — this time two notes. And the music continues…
In this section I draw further on my feelings on how poetry should be performed. This is played out with more manipulation of the timings. When, as I tell the story, I repeat a particular chord sequence, the chord sequence anticipates, predicting that something different is about to happen — a new scene, as it were, is just around the corner. This predictive text is not written in the score but comes from my memory of an old recording on audio cassette tape played on a church organ…
Much more rubato and dramatic storytelling…!
My own review of my own performance? Stately. Pronounced. Flights into the ether? Faithful to the term ‘toccata’. Organistic.
In Search Of The 32
Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas have been called, by a few, the New Testament of solo keyboard music; J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the Old Testament.
Let’s get to the matter of the topic: performance. For over thirty years I have been listening to recordings of the 32. Within the music, and between the notes, are essences of Beethoven and his classical/romantic world. Beethoven’s family and family life, and educational development; his forebears and teachers; his own established life as a pianist and composer; antiquity and culture of his time; his muse and acquaintances; even war and politics of his era — all made the man: Beethoven.
Beethoven’s early solo keyboard sonatas were written to be played on harpsichord or fortepiano — this includes sonata no. 8, op. 13 named grand sonate pathétique by the publisher. In my opinion this is because of the soothing, gentle, rocking and emotionally atmospheric elements of the second movement. As harpsichords do not have a sustain pedal, I have played this particular music without pedal — and, to my delight and wonder, it is more poetic. All my sheet music scores shows pedal.
Several years ago I went to Robert Morley & Company based in Lewisham, London looking for a piano. I had a collection of scores as test pieces. Piano after piano were left wanting. And so I took a leap: I tried a piano out of my bracket. It was Beethoven; I heard Beethoven! The piano was a British made Broadwood. Needless to say, Broadwood gave one of their pianos to Beethoven. Could the truth of the 32 be heard in a Broadwood?
Earlier today I received a subscribed email that linked to an article on the thirty-two sonatas. All extracts played on pianofortes. All eminent pianists or musicians with fine interpretations. All Beethoven…?
Michael Bobb – Artist • Author • Occasional Composer
Friday 26th August 2022
This recording includes Sonate Pathétique — without pedal. It is played on an Elysian piano, not a Broadwood. Listen for the poetry… and enjoy the poem!