Learning Dupré

Introduction

Learning Dupré is quite difficult. He had the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth from birth, at least in a musical sense. His father Albert was an organist in Rouen and good friends with iconic organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The latter built a house organ for the Dupré family when Marcel was 14. He certainly must have used it, since by the time he was 18 he was studying at the Conservatoire de Paris with three organists/composers of historical importance: Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne, and Charles-Marie Widor. Any musician would be lucky to study with just one of these gods.

Comparisons to J.S. Bach

Of course, one’s education is never a guarantee of success, but Dupré certainly didn’t disappoint. Although few outside of the organist world would consider Dupré worthy of comparison to J.S. Bach, there are some parallels. Both organists are what would we would call extremely well-rounded. They took both composition and performance seriously. In Bach’s day, that meant learning the emerging pianoforte as well as the established harpsichord and clavichord. Dupré only had to contend with the piano since the other two instruments practically vanished a century earlier.

Also, both advanced the technique of the music they wrote to the extent that their contemporaries often couldn’t play their music. One of Bach’s contemporaries, Sorge, wrote that Bach’s chorale preludes were “so difficult and almost unusable by players.” By that, he was talking about most other church musicians of the time. Dupré’s own teacher, Widor, who preceded Dupré as titular organist at Saint-Sulpice, declared the first and last Preludes and Fugues from Op. 7 to be unplayable.

Although the music of both composers evolved over time, their music was always unmistakably theirs, in a style that evolved but never drastically changed. Bach never gave up composing in a contrapuntal style even though most other composers moved to the simplified Rococo style with simple tonic and dominant harmony. Dupré never signed on to neo-classicism or neo-romanticism after atonality became passé.


Listen to the Bach Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, followed by the Dupré Invention in C Major, Op. 50, No. 1. Do you hear the influence of the German master on the French one?

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Learning Dupré: Inventions, Opus 50

Bach wrote two cycles of 24 keyboard works, the Well-Tempered Clavier, which explores every major and minor key. Certainly, Dupré knew and played these works as well. It wasn’t until he was 70 that he published his own cycle of 24 pieces, called the Inventions, Op. 50. In structure, they could be more accurately comparable to Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias. However, Dupré undersold these pieces a bit since his Inventions almost always have three independent voices, counting each of the hands and the feet together.

Learning Dupré takes hours of practice, even for these relatively simple Inventions. There is rarely a time where I spend so much time in study on the bench and feel like I’ve accomplished so little. Many people avoid this composer because learning Dupré isn’t easy.

More to Come

Having only learned the first four of these Op. 50 Inventions, and several of his Op. 18 Antiphons, I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point that I feel comfortable and in command of Dupré’s complex textures. Even if I do, will I be a good ambassador of his music towards others, especially given that his music doesn’t appeal widely. Although his music is not as atonal as Schönberg at the height of his career, there is something about the atonal style that makes liking the music difficult. One critic mentioned that the pieces become so involved in the exploration of compositional technique that the music sometimes suffers.

Frame of reverence is also important. This music evokes for me being in a large cathedral filled with all of the symbols and pageantry of high liturgy. If you can put yourself into that space, you may find a way to enjoy his works. If not, that’s okay too. There’s plenty of organ music that is a bit less high brow.

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Unattributed photo of Marcel Dupré at the Grand Orgue of Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-07-27

Grieg Galore

Introduction

My professor of keyboard harmony at The Juilliard School, Baruch Arnon, suggested that Edvard Grieg was a first-rate composer for the piano. Mr. Arnon was an all-business type of instructor, so when he gave off-topic recommendations it was worth noting. Grieg is one of those composers that a pianist typically knows, but doesn’t know well. As a child, I had played Elfin Dance for a National Piano Guild of Piano Teachers exam. As a young adult, I heard the Holberg Suite played in the string orchestra arrangement played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I knew that some day I had to play that on the piano. The story of Grieg Galore follows.

From Holberg’s Time

The connection between falling in love with that work and learning it took more than 30 years! The five pieces that make up this suite are dances written in a Baroque style to honor the eponymous Dano-Norwegian playwright. Though Grieg wrote the pieces in 1884, they celebrate Holberg’s 200th birthday. Thus the framework of the Baroque, with the unmistakable Norweigan romantic harmonies worked into the dances. Even though the Holberg Suite is much more well-known in its string orchestra arrangement, it was originally written for piano.

I programmed this work as part of my Piano Postludes, which take the place of organ postludes at First Methodist once per quarter. The Chopin Waltzes I played in May worked so well in the online church format that I sought to play more piano music. To listen to each one of the movements, you’d have to fast forward to the end of each church service between May 31st and June 28th. They are available on the Facebook page of First Methodist. While you are welcome to do that, I plan to reprise these pieces. They will appear either on a mini-recital or on my Weekly Acorn series.

Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1

Certainly more famous, but not originally written for the piano, are the orchestral pieces written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. From the smattering of incidental pieces, two suites were extracted, the first of which has best stood the test of time. When most classical aficionados think of Peer Gynt, they are likely thinking of the four individual pieces comprising this suite. Despite being originally written for orchestra, these pieces work really well on piano.

When I originally conceived doing the Holberg Suite as part of Piano Postludes, I thought programming the Peer Gynt on the Weekly Acorn would be the perfect complement for one June program. However, they are a bit trickier to learn than I first assessed, so I will instead debut them in July.

After he died, Grieg’s music quickly came to be regarded as old-fashioned. But his influence was particularly apparent on the French composers of the early 20th century. Ravel said that, other than Debussy, there was ‘no composer to whom I feel a closer affinity’.

Classic FM Website

About Grieg’s Fame

Grieg never attained the fame of other contemporary first-rate composers. I think there are two obvious clues. One, he stuck close to his Norweigan roots, including melodies from traditional music in his compositions. Two, he didn’t like to travel, and only did it begrudgingly. One might say from today’s perspective that he was poor in marketing!

Although Dvorak was very much a composer in the same mold, championing his Bohemian routes, he took a more international approach. He left Prague for a three-year stay in the United States. He cemented fame in the United States that endures to this day by composing his New World Symphony. The piece is filled with American musical and literary references. While Grieg took a different route, his music is wonderful, and deserves to be celebrated! A concise history of Grieg’s life can be found on the Classic FM Website.

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Photo of Edvard Grieg in 1888. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Last Updated 2020-07-23 | Originally Posted 2020-06-23

One Piano Parent Listened

When I start typing on my keyboard, I often wonder whether there is an audience for what I’m about to say. Even though I only write when I feel passionate about a topic, I don’t know if anyone will read my blog post or Web page. If someone reads it, will it be helpful or even better, influential? In one case, the answer is a resounding yes! One piano parent listened!

She was seeking to upgrade her child’s piano. My student had long ago outgrown the 61-key Yamaha keyboard that was her practice instrument. If you read my Web page on choosing the right piano, you’ll know that I was never a fan of this instrument in the first place. I’ve also gone on the record with a blog post making the argument for an acoustic piano. I admit there are a lot of positives about choosing an electronic keyboard, until you realize that even the best keyboard isn’t going to sound as good as even a mediocre piano.

After considering a range of instruments, the piano parent decided to go with something inexpensive; she bought an older American-made spinet. It was delivered just a month before the auditions for a music festival in which several of my students participate. This was the third festival in which I had prepared my student. Each previous time there was barely enough practice to be ready. The results were always okay but not great. This time, my student ranked as first alternate, or second place, for her level! Even though she didn’t go to the finals, she made a major accomplishment. Along the way, she surprised everyone, including me!

Yes, a decent piano can make the difference. In this case, it was one costing $700. My student started practicing independently, without badgering from her parents. She practiced the changes we discussed at lessons. Her approach to the piano became more confident in a way that I didn’t see before. A couple of months past that event, she continues to play well, and has completed her method books and is ready to move on to the next level. While there is no guarantee that a new(er) piano will do the trick, having a decent instrument is one of the keys to success. And, I’ll always be thankful that one piano parent listened!

Posted 2019-06-28

I bought a piano!

I wasn’t looking to buy a piano.  Really! But I bought a piano anyway. The interest was sparked by a piano parent who was searching for an acoustic piano. But I was surprised when she emailed me an advertisement for a 48-inch Yamaha U1 upright, built in 1977. This is a top-of-the-line upright, which Yamaha continues to make in Japan, along with their tallest model, the 52-inch U3. They offshored production of all of their shorter uprights decades ago.

When it was clear that my piano parent was pursuing pianos in a much lower price range, I made the call. It’s tough to fairly evaluate resale prices for used instruments, but I knew that the asking price was correct if the instrument was in excellent condition. However, even well-loved instruments can develop issues requiring significant rework, so I didn’t want to take any chances.

I hired my preferred tuner to do an analysis of the instrument, since a $60 fee was well worth saving hundreds or even more if I chose poorly. I have to be realistic that this might be the last instrument that I purchase. Yes, I’d still love to have a Steinway B or Mason & Hamlin BB, but this is a practical decision for now.

Everything worked out, and I was able to find a new owner for my Knabe spinet that is old enough to have ivory key covers. It was a gift to me, so it is now a gift to a new piano parent. I never loved this piano, but that’s more a reflection on me than it; I have better instruments available to practice where I work. It still has more to give, and I hope it will be appreciated for years to come.

Adopt a new-to-you upright of your choice. You won’t be disappointed!

Posted 2019-04-17

What is your goal?

I got the chance to do quite a bit of reading during time off from work, especially following Christmas Eve, which included two services and a very difficult organ recital in between those broadcast via Facebook Live. Without looking for it, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the New York Times titled I’ll Never Be Rachmaninoff. It was written by an adult piano student who returned to the piano following a long absence. Her goal was clear; but what is your goal?

It’s not the first time I’ve written a post based on the recreational benefits of piano study, but I think it always comes across better in the first person. Jennifer Weiner tells the story of finding teachers, and how study positively affected her life and daughter as well. Ms. Weiner was a very competitive person in youth and in life, so the last thing she needed was to resume piano study with the hopes of becoming great. Her goal was to be good, not great, and she describes her journey towards just that. Thus, the title of her article is particularly compelling.

I try to remember to ask my students about their goals and to regularly check in with them that lessons are meeting them. Often, especially with younger students, the goal is pretty general, just to play better, and the means to get there isn’t specific. For other students, particularly teens and adults, there are more specific goals in mind. It might be to reach higher levels in classical study, to play pop songs, or to play Christmas carols for their family.

One of my adult students had that last goal. She just reported back that it went well. For this particular student, the focus was short-term, to play a series of Christmas carols well enough for a sing-along. She enjoyed it enough and received enough positive feedback that she’s considering more study, though not right away. That’s great!

Whatever your goal is in piano study, I hope to help guide you there. Whether your goal is to be good or great, I think Sergei would approve!

Posted 2019-01-02

Listen to the piano

I’m often asked by piano parents for recommendations on buying a piano. It’s a loaded question. I often have to ask several follow-up questions before giving an answer that will satisfy what they are really asking. In ideal terms, I’m thinking about the instrument that would best serve the student now and several years into the future. In practical terms, the parent is often looking for a bargain and something that will work now. It’s sometimes even difficult to get a parent to consider an acoustic instrument, even when money isn’t the primary constraint. How can I possibly make more of a dent, to get someone to try to think differently? Listen to the piano.

Since I perform quite a bit, I play a variety of instruments. Most of them are acoustic instruments, but there are occasions when they are electronic. There are those grin and bear moments, like when I played for a birthday party earlier this year with a borrowed 61-key electronic keyboard, damper pedal not included. Not all electronic experiences are like that. I often get to play some really good keyboards, such as a Yamaha Clavinova. Although there are other companies that make legitimate keyboards, I really like this model just because I’m most familiar with it.

However, I can’t say that I’ve ever played a keyboard without feeling compromised. I’m not talking from a purist or snobbish viewpoint. Listen to the piano. How does it sound? To me, there’s only way to produce the sound that a piano should have, and that’s with a hammer hitting a string. Sound sampling has greatly improved during my lifetime to where electronic instruments merit their place. They just aren’t real!

I was scrolling through Instagram posts one morning, and came across a pianist whom I know only through social media. She often posts students playing her old American-made grand piano that has a sound that could only come from that instrument. Between the moving parts of hammers and strings and the fixed ones like the iron and wood, each piano has a story to tell. Listen to the piano. I’m still amazed that my tiny Knabe spinet, so old that it has ivory key covers, speaks so beautifully. All spinets have the compromise of a drop action, but they can still sing and inspire.

Listen to the piano. That’s how I’m going to start when next asked this question. Perhaps my advice will go unheeded. But maybe that will cause some piano parents to pause to listen. And who knows? That might make all the difference!

Update: My former Knabe spinet is now in the home of a new piano student, as a result of the purchase of a Yamaha U1 48-inch upright.

Updated 2019-06-24 | Originally Posted 2018-12-23